Damon Galgut (2010) In a Strange Room Atlantic Books, London; 256 pp.; ISBN 978-1-848-87325-4
In this autobiographical novel, Damon recollects three journeys in a life of travelling. The first two are in his youth and the last in middle age. The style is spare and fragmented, so that episodes are only partially recalled, motivations are forgotten, some images and times are vivid while others are forever lost. The style evokes the messy way our minds remember, though it is odd that the stories keep to a strict chronology, something that memory often fails to do. The narration is mostly done in the third person, making the account seem detached and devoid of emotional involvement. Publishing this as a novel rather than a piece of travel literature is also a neat way of avoiding any moral responsibility for the contents.
The first story, The Follower, describes Damon’s meeting in Greece with Reiner, a German on the road trying to decide whether to marry a woman back home. Reiner is dressed all in black, with a black haversack, and is obsessive about his appearance. He is largely silent and has an air of disdain about the world and other people. You know the type: the cool dude with the Hamlet look and attitude. Gullible Damon is infatuated with him and when Reiner later visits Damon in South Africa, they decide to take a long journey on foot in Lesotho. Damon makes the error of not taking any money, so Reiner is in control from the outset. Things begin well but as the trek continues and becomes more arduous, they fall out and Damon returns home. They spot each other twice back in South Africa, but do not speak, then Reiner is never heard of again. I breathed a sigh of relief.
At one point in The Follower, Damon wonders where Reiner gets all his money for travelling, and I was wondering the same thing about Damon, but if he expects others to be revealing, Damon himself is tight lipped.
In The Lover, Damon is adrift in Zimbabwe and joins a group of younger backpackers travelling to Malawi. He enjoys some time with them but eventually tires of their lack of respect for local people and the environment. He finds the poverty in the villages confronting – not that this changes his behaviour at all. He then meets a trio of French-speaking travellers and becomes enamoured with Jerome, even though they have no language in common and are unable to communicate in any meaningful way. All conversation is mediated through another in the group who is able to speak English. At this point I was wondering how stupid Damon could get, but the farce continues as he tries to enter Tanzania without a visa and fails to read the obvious signal from the border guard that he wants a bribe to let Damon through. They continue to Kenya but Damon turns down an offer to go to Europe. He heads home then later visits Switzerland to see Jerome. The reunion is formal and unsatisfactory so Damon leaves, realising perhaps that he is no lover after all.
The third story, The Guardian, sees Damon taking a friend Anna on a trip to India. Anna has serious psychological problems and is on multiple medications – the ideal travelling companion? It seems that the transition to middle age has done nothing to improve Damon’s standing in the idiocy stakes. Anna begins behaving badly as soon as they are on the plane and it gets worse as the days rattle along. In India, Anna attempts suicide. Damon doesn’t cope well but order is restored by Caroline, an English nurse on an extended stay. They get Anna to some hospitals and she slowly recovers, but the police are on her trail (attempted suicide is a crime in India). With help they manage to get her out of the country. Caroline and Damon are both emotionally drained and Caroline tells Damon about the death of her husband in Morocco some years before, the memory rekindled by Anna’s ordeal. Damon continues on his travels, hears that Anna has died back in South Africa, but sticks to the road and avoids her funeral.
There is nothing to like about Damon. It is clear that he travels in order to escape emotional involvement. At times he is described as very lonely and sits weeping to himself. In the final pages he visits the grave of Caroline’s husband in Morocco and again is moved to tears, if only for a short time (he has a taxi to catch). You realise he is never really crying for anyone else, only himself and the waste of a life without commitment or depth. He’s been a hopeless follower, a blind fool of a lover and a tragic guardian. His tending Anna after her suicide attempt is the only time that Damon appears to show any concern for others, but you get the impression it is driven by panic and managed by Caroline rather than being a wilful choice.
An alternative is possible: at the end of The Lover he looks after a house outside Cape Town belonging to friends who are away. He loses his desire to travel, takes local walks, falls into a routine and feels a degree of contentment. But in the end the inner demons drive him on and you get the feeling that as long as the money is there he will be flitting off here and there, forever detached and unattached.
If you travel a lot you encounter four types on a journey: the tourist, the backpacker, the worker and the traveller. The first three have some purpose to their wanderings and a reasonably clear timeframe. For the traveller it is all about the endless journey. As with Damon, the source of funds is often vague and the anecdotes, at first exotic and attractive, quickly become repetitive and self-serving. Greater wealth and cheap travel have allowed these people to propagate their misery and selfishness in (mainly poor) countries all over the globe.
There is a cruel joke about these lost souls: that the sole purpose of their lives is to act as a warning to others. Damon’s life is a bit like that. Do the opposite of most things he does and your life should go reasonably well. At least you’ll be human.