Perceptive though it is about the workings of the psyche, the narrative palls without a storyline. DEEPA KANDASWAMY
“In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were”.
– In a Strange Room
W hen does a journey begin? Why do you travel? Is it an attempt to seek something, get away from someone or to escape time itself? If you are not a tourist and actually enjoy travelling alone, is something wrong with you or are you a self-obsessed nihilist who is trying to mark time unsuccessfully in the world? What would you do if you wake up a decade from now and realise you have wasted your life over people – strangers whose lives meant so much to you during a trip at that particular moment but whom you are not in touch with anymore? Are you living with imaginary relations and imagining relationships with online friends or strangers you met on a journey several years ago? These are some of the questions that Damon Galgut asks and ponders in the book, In a Strange Room.
This book is an unusual read as there is no plot, theme, conflict or characters, making it unlike any book of fiction. The book is divided into three sections – ‘The follower', ‘The lover' and ‘The guardian' but each section is a complete narrative or essay by itself as I would never call it a story. And, the titles are completely misleading. The sections are not interconnected in anyway except all that happened in the author-protagonist's travels. The protagonist in all probability seems to be the author himself as they both have the same first names. It seems as if the author got up one day, picked up a few of his diaries from the ‘90s, and chose three of his travel experiences from that decade of the 20th Century, and decided to make stories out of them, except they are more like musings about what he was doing or why he did what he did during those times. This would explain his use of both the third person and first person to describe himself! The first person seems to be his way of explaining why he did what he did, or chose to do in the past as the author considers himself in the past as a character for which he uses third person. There are some astute, extremely accurate observations – almost philosophical at times but the book tells no story and has a cynical, almost nihilistic view of fiction and life.
Damon Galgut's style is unusual as he breaks all rules of fiction, grammar and punctuation. There is absolutely no characterisation and seems almost a self-absorbed narration, even in the final section, ‘The guardian'. His constant musings which almost border on the philosophical can at times annoy the reader as it is hard to care about the protagonist while all the other characters seem to have no personality. The protagonist (author) explains this away with , “If you are names without nature, it's not because I don't remember…I am writing about myself alone, it's all I know…” (Page 106). As you read, you feel like screaming – okay, but where is the story? But you don't get any answer until the end – there is no story. Damon Galgut seems to think or at least suggest through this book that fiction, like life is not structured – there is no beginning, middle and end and it can't be wrapped up nicely and neatly; or that is the statement he seems to be making, laughing at all those who try to write fiction in a regular format. If you expect a story, you are in for a huge disappointment. Nevertheless, I wish he had called it non-fiction as this book reads more like a travelogue than fiction – extremely visual and almost audible at times, surprising you with sparks of brilliant prose and insights as the protagonist (who is most probably the author) travels across Europe, Africa and India.
Sense of place
Damon Galgut is an author from South Africa whose previous novels have been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Award and Commonwealth Writer's Prize. While his prose is extremely visual sweeping from the ruins in Greece to the mountainous outdoors in Lesotho, from the different countries across Africa to pit stops in Europe, from Cape town to hospitals in Goa, it brings to life the places but not the people.The book reads like that of a gifted artist who paints landscapes but just cannot paint portraits.
In a Strange Room is a tough read because of the style and the substance of the book. I would definitely recommend it for those who enjoy travelling alone or for those who suffer from insomnia! For those who enjoy travelling alone, you may actually learn not to make the same mistakes that the protagonist does in this book and may actually prove to be helpful. Insomniacs will find this book acts as a sleeping pill and puts you to sleep pretty quickly after a few pages. This is an extremely forgettable book just as the author says, “What you don't remember never happened.”