"There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it's a long way from home."
I've been reading Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself lately, and Ebert describes his early days as a film critic and his education in the art of film- time spent visiting sets, talking to stars and directors, etc., learning how to understand and evaluate a film on technical grounds. But in the end, what he had to talk about was what did the film do to him. It's something I'm trying to think about more consciously as I read and review books. What did this book do to me?
In a Strange Room scarred me. Composed of three almost independent novellas, Galgut tells the story of an itinerant South African man named Damon and his travels in Africa and India with various companions. Each of the three chapters is titled after Damon's role in relation to these companions. In one, he's a follower, trailing behind a vain and self-contained German who poses more and more difficult physical challenges as the mens' amiable relationship breaks down. In the second, Damon is the admirer of a man who is part of a boisterous group of tourists he encounters in a neighboring country and follows all the way to Amsterdam. But it's the final story that will haunt me. Here, Damon is companion and caretaker to the mercurial and volatile Anna, mentally ill and suicidal. His time with her, in India, is horrific- a nightmare that challenges his endurance, his patience, his love and his sense of himself.
The first two chapters are luminous, moody and full of description; the third is all action and plot until it quiets down after the maelstrom in India ends and Damon returns to South Africa alone. When I picked it up to start the third chapter, I didn't expect to be unable to put it down. I picked In a Strange Room as my first Europa of 2013 because I'm on a bit of a South Africa bender right now, but most of the book takes place elsewhere. And Galgut has several lovely passages on the traveler's state of mind, the particular kind of alienation and impermanence peculiar to the wanderer:
A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are....Things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.And in writing. Damon is always alone, even though he is almost always in the company of others. He is alone in crowds, on bus rides and at checkpoints, and most particularly he is alone with Anna, locked in her disease and her manias. Her voracious need fills every available space, every nook and cranny of Damon's consciousness as he struggles to care for her. Her needs give his life a purpose, at least for a time. But it can't go on like this forever.
What a beautiful, heartbreaking book, a study on solitude and relationships and how to coexist with others and the world and sit apart at the same time.
It's my first book for the 2013 Europa Challenge and I loved it! I published this review on the Europa Challenge site and on my blog.