I was intrigued when I read accounts of this beautifully written memoir novel. It is provocative and engaging in equal measure.
In a Strange Room
South African Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (224 pages, Europa Editions, $15) tells a fascinating story about a lonely gay man who finds himself in three different situations which both frustrate and depress him. All are told from the first-person point of view, and all seem to talk about someone like the author, and it seems that the novel also doubles as a memoir. As both novel and memoir, it is deeply engaging and profoundly true.
In the first tale, Damon finds himself engaging with a provocative stranger in Greece. This handsome German, called Reiner, engages the South African and proposes to visit him in Cape Town. When the stranger arrives, Damon finds that he is as much repulsed as he is attracted to the powerfully masculine figure of this friend, and he is not really sure he trusts him. But Reiner proposes some time hiking together in a land distant from the civilized urban world they know. This excites the narrator and before long the two men are hiking in Lesotho, carrying all their supplies and camping wherever they can. Galgut makes vivid the loneliness of such travel, especially when so much is unspoken between the two men. They walk in silence, each alone in his own thoughts, and when they do engage, it is usually in competitive terms. As the situation becomes hellish for Damon, he has no alternative but to burst out against his companion’s arrogance and self-absorption. This causes a break, and it proves to the narrator what an insufficient basis for friendship has been the vague attraction he felt for Reiner. This hike has in fact been an antidote to friendship; and if Damon is any wiser at the end of the talk, it is the wisdom of loneliness.
The second narrative is, if anything, even more devastating. Again the narrator is traveling in Africa and he meets up with an interesting group of Europeans. He is particularly fascinated with a trio: an older French man and a younger Swiss pair, a brother and sister. The younger man, Jerome, speaks no English, but seems attracted to the narrator. The feeling seems to be mutual, but there is no chance to act on the attraction. These people always travel in a group, and even when Jerome and Damon are on their own, there is little they can say to each other. It is clear Jerome wants Damon to stay with the group, and even when he has to separate from the group because of some visa issues, Jerome makes a plea that Damon come to visit him in Switzerland. Oddly enough, Damon persuades himself that he should make that visit; when he gets there, however, the family welcomes him but there are no direct overtures from Jerome. After staying sometime, Damon leaves in frustration and worries that maybe he should have handled the whole thing differently.
In the third section, Damon goes to India with a female friend who has been ill with a serious depression for some time. He hopes to be her companion as she comes out of treatment and finds herself again, but instead he finds that he is her antagonist; and it gradually becomes clear that he is the only person standing between his friend and her self-destruction. Here the frustration and anger are even more palpable than they were in the earlier sections, and again Damon fails to save his friend.
The soul-searching that accompanies each of these sections is riveting, and the central character makes it clear that all these failures leave him alone but somehow stronger for it all. This seems to be the moral of the tale: Damon fails to save his friends or even to establish a truly meaningful relationship, but still he finds himself and makes peace with that. That is surely something.
In a Strange Room is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.