Book Review: In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

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’sIn 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 Galgutan 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.


Rating: 3.5/5

Type: Paperback

Publisher: Atlantic Books, London

Price: ₹ 399.00

Fady Joudah

“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”

These lines by the eccentric German philologist and philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche would be an understatement when we speak about Fady Joudah’s poems in his book published by the Copper Canyon Press in 2013 titled Textu. An anthology of over eighty different poems inspired from various facets of life, Textu is one of the unique presentations where all the poems consist of exactly 160 characters akin to the text box limit in the messaging screen of our phones. A distinguished poet in his own right, Fady speaks about his motivation behind this novel expedition to a leading media house stating:

“What happens after your 160 characters are up? You pay for a second text. So it’s also a statement of the economy. I am protesting to the god of capital, but I’m also submitting to the god of capital by saying I’m going to give you a poem of 160 characters because that’s the rule you gave me.” (1)


A doctor by profession, Fady Joudah was born in the first day of the year 1971 in Texas, America. His parents were Palestinian refugees staying at Austin, USA. Fady spent most of his early life in Libya and Saudi Arabia. Now, he practices as an emergency room physician at Texas. Besides, Fady has also been a volunteer to the noble projects undertaken by the humanitarian non-governmental organization Doctors without Borders. He has already been in humanitarian missions on a couple of occasions to Darfur (Sudan) and Zambia. Fady cites that both medicine and poetry are two elements of his life that are unrelated and different in more ways than one. In a candid interview, he speaks with a poetic undertone:

“I am not sure what my poetry gives to my medicine or takes away from it.” (2)

Fady has already completed three volumes of poetry till date. His first collection “The Earth in the Attic” won the Yale series of younger poets’ prize in 2007. The poems in the collection touched upon diverse themes and sub themes. In his poems, Fady paints a canvas which takes a form that is quaint as well as modish. Poems such as Scarecrow and Pulse portray a vivid picture studded with metaphors and analogies which is often found to be an inextricable part of Fady’s creations. Louise Glück, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who judged and awarded Joudah for his collection describes the latter’s work as varied, coherent, fierce, tender; impossible to put down, impossible to forget.”

In 2013, Fady published another collection of poems along with Textu. Titled Alight, the anthology consists of some evocative works that derives inspiration from various walks of life and beyond. In one such piece Mimesis, Fady equates the spider’s web to the plight of refugees. On another occasion, the poet goes autobiographical in Twice a River. Keeping aside their poetic brilliance, Fady’s poems also stand out for their intuitive titles.

Not restricted to being a physician and a poet, Fady Joudah is also an accomplished translator. So far, Fady has assiduously translated a sizeable number of Arabic poems by Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Zaqtan. That his translations have produced three published books speaks about the finesse and expertise that Fady brings about in his works. His translation works have earned Fady a Banipal prize from the UK in 2008 for The Butterfly’s Burden, a PEN USA award in 2010 for If I were Another, and the Griffin International Poetry Prize 2013 for Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me.

Over the years, Fady Joudah has been known for his astute poetic brilliance that has resulted into varied poems that exudes extraordinary style and panache. In 2014, he received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry.


Inspired by his most recent works,  a naïve, little effort at composing a poem within the constraints of a 160 character boundary in my text message box was made. This is how it turned out:




The earth teems with it

Nature execrates it

Man thrives on it


What do these all aggregate to?

Savoir faire superabound

Flourishes the cancer: Hatred