Co incidences are chance events which take place out of the blue at the same time that might be happy, depressing or totally indifferent. One such co incidence occurred when I took up Damon Galgut’s “In a Strange Room” on an early winter morning from my book shelf and scanned through the pages. I had just completed J.M Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K and the analytical mind in me could not stop drawing similarities between the two books as I went through the back blurbs. To start with, both Galgut and Coetzee are from South Africa or rather both were born in South Africa . Besides, both have been nominated for the Man booker Prize more than once. Coming closer to the novels, the aforementioned works deal with journeys undertaken by the protagonists who hail from Cape Town in South Africa. Vague though it may seem, these parallelisms provided just about the requisite zest to embark on a new journey through the minds of Galgut- an accomplished author whose works I had not yet perused. Twelve hours later, crouching inside the warmth of the quilt, I am filled with a sense of contentment on having read this beautiful work- a piece which is uncannily beautiful and poignantly distressing.
In a Strange Room is a tale of three journeys undertaken by the protagonist who shares his first name with the author- Damon. Separate and unrelated, the three stories revolve around different situations with a common parity amongst them- all of them ending in despair and anguish. Subtitled as “Three Journeys” Galgut paints a wonderful landscape with careful detailing of the lead character and associated personalities.
In the first journey titled “The Follower” the protagonist accompanies a German ‘raven haired’ traveller Reiner to Lesotho. Reiner as it turns out is an imperious individual who does not care about his co traveller. He has this bossy and arrogant attitude which is in sharp contrast to the meek and timid nature of Damon. Unable to bear with his repressive disposition, Damon parts ways with Reiner, returning to his native place abandoning the journey mid way. On his way back, Damon reflects upon how things went and how they could have gone.
In the succeeding expedition titled “The Lover”, knowingly and unknowingly Damon finds himself in the company of three Europeans (one French and two Swiss) and sets about on a journey with them to Tanzania. In due course of time, he is in two minds whether or not to continue with them or go his own way. However, on each occasion he allows himself to continue with the trio overcoming hassles at the borders, bribing officials at the vaccination centres etc. He cannot help being drawn towards the Swiss Jerome which eventually makes him undertake a journey to Switzerland long after they had parted ways in Tanzania.
In the final voyage titled “The Guardian”, Damon shoulders the responsibility of taking care of a dying girl friend on a trip to India. A lady, who is high on sedatives, makes his shoddy life take a graphical turn when she tries to commit suicide.
On all the three occasions, Damon- the lead character is painted as a lonely individual who often surrenders his life to the worldly affairs. He empowers the people around him to shape his journey and he feels gratified in following their trail. He permits his life to be swayed by sudden impulsive decisions which are often made without reason or thought. All the three journeys end with Damon in misery and hopelessness. Galgut has been lucid in his description of the places in which each of the three peregrinations take place. He craftily writes about the prevalent corruption at the borders and how things actually work in the African sides which is actually true in most borders of the underdeveloped and developing economies. He writes about the medical conventions at local Indian hospitals with appreciable nonchalance. In course of his story telling, Galgut does not sacrifice the essential particulars of each character. With his evocative depictions of individual characters countenance, the author ensures that the reader is never aloof from the protagonist’s perspective of the situations unfolding in the story.
The title of the book seems to have been inspired from a passage in William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”. The same passage finds a place in the narrative where the lead character is portrayed as reading a book that contained the lines: “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 were filled with sleep, you never were”. The writer acknowledges about the lines being quoted from Faulkner’s work towards the end of the book.
Galgut has been shrewd in his usage of denominations for the protagonist. He names him after his own name Damon which spells ‘nomad’ when written backwards. On another occasion, a certain character in the story who repeatedly forgets Damon’s name refers to him as Noel which is also an anagram of ‘lone’. Galgut goes to greater depths in the astute use of names for his characters. The quote “He has no house” by Vojislav Jakic at the beginning of the novel accentuates Damon’s character and is a befitting prefatory note to the book.
The book is narrated from the third person point of view; but the author shifts between third and second person and also to the first person quite often. This may appear erratic at first but one soon gets the hang of it and the read becomes a joy ride from thereon.
Damon Galgut weaves an unnatural story which touches every nuance of life. A reader from any sphere of life will find certain attributes of him resonate with the depiction of the lead characters life. The book is a wonderful celebration of events which might be sombre yet alluring; dingy but appealing. Needless to say, In a Strange Room would leave the reader at the edge of a waterfall – a sense of frenzied creepiness on the precipice; but a mesmerizingly spectacular field of vision.
Publisher: Atlantic Books, London
Price: ₹ 399.00