Co-existence between travellers. Damon Galgut's South African allegory

"In A Strange Room" is South African writer Damon Galgut's new collection of stories. The difficulty of coexistence between travellers trying to get along seems to speak to the current condition of his homeland.
James Warner
19 January 2011


In each story in Damon Galgut's In A Strange Room, people go on a journey together, not talking much. The characters visit beaches or ruins together in silence – damaged people in a harsh landscape – and then things fall apart.

In A Strange Room often reminded me of V.S. Naipaul's In A Free State, in its portrayal of travel and relationships as microcosms of a larger world, in its mood of disillusioned serenity and frustration, in its recognition of the impossibility of escaping oneself. Like Naipaul, Galgut is attuned to the false notes people strike, to the cruelty lurking beneath the surface of ordinary social interaction, to how different people are from each other deep down. The relationships between his characters are often founded on false assumptions, never quite becoming friendships. The question that pervades all of Galgut's fiction is this: how are we to co-exist with one another?

In A Strange Room is Galgut’s first book that is not mostly set in South Africa. But it seems to be inescapably about South Africa anyway.

The narrator of “The Follower,” the first story in the book, falls in and then falls out with an overbearing German traveling companion, Reiner.  Reiner is high-handed and culturally insensitive. He and the narrator “refrain from talking because it might reveal to them how dangerously unlike one another they are.” This line makes me think of a passage in The Masque of Africa where V.S. Naipaul quotes a white South African telling him, “There is a complete absence of discourse.”

Naipaul could be implying that South Africa's many ethnic groups may prove too different from each other to forge a common identity. Galgut’s “The Follower” illustrates how hard it is for people to travel together if they have very different value systems -- Reiner eventually usurps too much control over his traveling companion's itinerary and expenditures, provoking the narrator to ditch him in the mountains of Lesotho.

In “The Guardian,” the third story of In A Strange Room, Galgut’s narrator undertakes to look after a mentally disturbed and suicidal woman, Anna, while traveling in India. Anna is beautiful and incredibly full of energy, yet dangerous to herself. He feels responsible for her, and outsiders tend to blame him for what is wrong with her, just as world opinion still tends reflexively to blame South Africa's problems on the legacy of apartheid and the past crimes of white South Africans.  South Africa is plagued by crime, superstition, and AIDS -- Anna is devious, delusional, promiscuous, and kept alive by medications. Her refusal to take these medications parallels the disastrous refusal of the South African government during the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki to take preventive measures against the AIDS epidemic.

The narrator is unable to arrest Anna's downward spiral. He finds himself playing the role of her jailer, for her own protection. She demands more and more from him, and he becomes physically afraid of her. Ultimately he has no power over her, but cannot bring himself to leave her -- and she comes to despise him. Of Anna he writes “this is a crucial difference between them, he thinks in terms of tomorrow and the day after that, but for her there is only now, which is eternity.” At last “there is a chilly reserve between them, which covers over a gulf so huge that it can perhaps never be bridged... They are in a place where language has no purchase...”

In A Strange Room has the feel of very autobiographical fiction – there was reportedly debate at the Paris Review, which first published these stories, over whether to label them as fiction or memoir. So Reiner and Anna are based on real individuals whom Galgut traveled with, a German man and a presumably-white South African woman. And yet Galgut has made their stories resonate as parallel parables of South African history. Parallel since, to the Germanic, almost autistic Reiner, the narrator must appear rather as Anna does to the narrator – as loose-thinking, unreliable and directionless – while to Anna, the narrator may seem as insufferably controlling and superior as Reiner seems to the narrator.

Galgut told the Paris Review, “Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn't so easy to do.” This is a powerful moral argument against cliché. Part of what makes Galgut's work strong is the sense that he's genuinely trying to scope out the future.

If “The Follower” is resonant of South Africa's repressive past, and “The Guardian” draws out one scenario for South Africa's future, it is tempting to try and read the middle story of In A Strange Room, “The Lover,” as evoking some in-between point where an important opportunity was lost. “The Lover” is the least formally satisfying story in the book, but unsatisfying in a way that seems deliberate and even necessary. The narrator travels through Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya, encountering violence, poverty, multi-party elections, and corruption, but not finding love. He is drawn towards a man called Julian – chance separates and reunites them several times. The narrator feels stalled in his life. Galgut writes, “I am writing about myself alone, it's all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.”

In one scene, a Danish man says of South Africa, “the country was so beautiful, if only all the South Africans weren't so fucked-up,” then falls silent when he remembers a South African is present. The narrator smiles inwardly, a characteristic Galgut response – but what does it signify here? Partly that, as a white South African, Galgut is used to encountering such prejudices? Partly that, based on his own self-portrayal in In A Strange Room, Galgut does see himself as rather repressed and alienated, and may be ironically agreeing that he is “fucked-up?” In the context of the story, he might also be thinking that so far he's been treating the people of Malawi with more courtesy than have the Scandinavians in the group. He might also wonder if the Dane has ever contemplated how far Denmark's social permissiveness is made practical by Denmark's relative ethnic and economic homogeneity.

Travel is an emotive topic for Afrikaners -- a people whose great heroes were trekkers, and for many of whom emigration looms as an ever-imminent possibility. The mood Galgut creates in his own travel writing is one of stasis, of destiny thwarted, and a lost narrative thread. Throughout  In A Strange Room, he shifts between referring to his narrator in the third and the first person, enhancing the effect of self-alienation and dispossession. The narrator of “The Lover” eventually visits Julian in his native Switzerland, but no real communication is achieved – still less is the potential for a homosexual relationship ever realized. Back in South Africa, when the narrator learns of Julian's suicide, “everything he knows looks strange and unfamiliar, as if he's lost in a country he's never visited before.”

To quote one white African-born writer to whom Galgut has been compared, Albert Camus – “A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.”  If so, Galgut is a divided, conflicted author -- and he comes from a divided, conflicted nation.

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