Travel, they say, broadens the mind. This seems to be so well-accepted as to be an aphorism that even Winston Churchill, in this 1943 documentary by the British Council on The History of the English Language, seems to think that there is only one type of travel, or one very specific way to travel. According to Churchill, even Britain’s colonialist ventures, as it turns out, was an “exploration” – presumably a way for the nation to find itself in a vast universe of others.
Thus, individuals also set out to travel to “find themselves”. Even a community considered as hermetic as the Amish allow their youth the rumspringa, the teenage rite of passage that gives them the opportunity to go out into the world and explore all things non-Amish for a short period of time.
To what end are these explorations? There’s always, in every journey, an implicit notion of a return home. We allow people their moments of exploration, bouts of travel, self-fulfilling holidays, but the eternal traveller invites suspicion and occasion scorn. Only people of a certain age – adolescents, young adults – are given leeway to find themselves. There is also, in this notion, the implicit understanding that there is a quantifiable ‘self’ to be found and excavated, hiding beneath the ruins of one’s banal, day-to-day life.
Then, one thinks, what of the adults who live each day in exile? In the words of Edward Said, “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” This essential sadness is no doubt the compelling factor; or perhaps it’s only compelling to me. We lug around bags of stuff day in and day out, going from one meeting and work assignment and social gathering to another, and essentially we seem to be lugging this sense of sadness around, as well. Our various forms of sadness rub against each other, writhe, slide, and occasionally jostle and collide.
I had hopes of learning more about the condition of compelling sadness when I opened the pages of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. From the reviews I’d read, I’d assumed Galgut was the go-to guy for this sort of thing. But if the book is steeped in sadness, it’s of the kind that is so prevalent and consistently exhausting that it becomes almost ridiculous. It’s like spending 180 pages with Eeyore, minus the cute donkey factor.
For sadness to be in any way compelling, it needs to be situated in context of others’ sadness. Modern-day travel stories tend to be ridiculous because no one pretends any longer to be interested in the world. The world, as it is, is at your fingertips with the click of a mouse or a tap on the touchscreen. All I really need to know about Lagos I learn from Wikipedia, and the only reason I go there is to post my pictures up on Facebook and count the number of ‘Likes’ it can accumulate.
It seems only fitting, then, that In a Strange Room is the Eat, Pray, Love for the serious set. Its Booker nomination only seems to attest to how men and women can essentially write the same book, but if there is Serious Philosophizing and Serious Manpain involved, a prestigious literary nomination is likely for one gender, while a bad movie and public derision is reserved for the other.
In a Strange Room is centred on one mysterious traveller, a person named “Damon” (how’s that for a hint?) with no tangible roots or history or perhaps more precisely, no interest in sharing those roots. The book is set in three parts, each set within a different continent: Europe, Africa, India. In each of these three sections, the central character Damon is the axis upon which the other characters rotate. The sections have been titled accordingly: “The Follower”, “The Lover”, and “The Guardian”, giving the reader a tentative, nebulous idea of the role Damon plays in each of his encounters. A mysterious German with whom Damon shares an undercurrent of antagonistic sexual attraction, a seemingly-innocent Swiss boy for whom Damon develops an infatuation (or love?), a close female friend who suffers from depression – these are Damon’s fellow-travellers on the search for an elusive meaning.
It’s perhaps the novel’s biggest flaw that its central preoccupation with human relations is unable to translate through its words. It might be unfair to assume that Damon’s inability to reach out to others is because he’s endlessly preoccupied with his own emotional temperature at any given time. However, this is the conclusion that one inevitably reaches. In this book, as well as in The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, the only other Galgut novel I’ve read, Galgut’s central obsession as a writer seems to be the moments in life that transform strangers into non-strangers. Certainly, Galgut has a gift for capturing those fleeting, in-between moments of discomfort, uneasiness, anxiety, longing, desire, and repulsion that the presence of another person might arouse.
However, where Galgut’s language has been praised for being precise or beautiful is where I hoped to see more chaos and disorder, and less of an earnest, desperate yearning for the sublime. Every few paragraphs seeks to make Meaning of some person or situation. Why complain about this, when it is very well something that we all crave in our art, whether or not we recognise that craving? Yet in Galgut’s writing the attempt at meaning-making always seems so desperate that it begins to hint at the artificial. As long as there is some attempt at pondering over the deep, dark impenetrable matters of human relations, Galgut seems to think, this will be a Serious Novel. Therefore we get pronouncements like this: “An image in a mirror is a reversal, the reflection and the original are joined but might cancel each other out.” What, you think, does this have to do with Reiner, the mysterious German, whose story we were in the midst of before Damon interjects with this observation?
In the first section of the book, particularly, there is plenty of opportunity for turmoil, sexual anguish, and raw pain even if Damon remains immobilised, petrified even, by the very idea of being allowed to feel something. There is opportunity here, one thinks as one reads, for Damon’s placid surface to suffer some form of crack. But what we get instead is more rumination and armchair analysis, Damon observing himself from a distance, Damon observing the world from a distance, Damon in pain because he is only able to observe everything from a distance. While Damon as a character is allowed to disappoint the reader, Galgut as a writer should preferably strive not to. By that I mean, your writing can fail, but it should not be the failed writing that is published and marketed as a life-changing book. Galgut’s writing is essentially Damon the character made-into-words. It’s endlessly preoccupied with its own self, striving to reach for and convey meaning where others will be happy to have, instead, the merest glimmer of an idea or a flicker of genuine emotion.
Probably we can all agree that Galgut writes beautifully, and there is a gentle, rhythmic elegance underlying the structure of his prose, but that’s a mere technicality. There must be some rupture at the point of beauty and perfection that allows writing to strive for some deeper uncertainty. In a Strange Room is too sure of itself, written with one eye for “literary” posterity. Ultimately, however, just as Damon stands apart distant from his world – the fascinating places he visits are mere backdrop and not one bit more – I am moved to only fold my arms and step back from the book to say, “It was passable.” I am tired of reading about on-the-whole privileged people so damaged by whatever life has done to them that they can’t take pleasure in the newness of a new place. If a person in Malawi can’t afford to travel the world and suffers from this form of ennui from having been trapped within one place his or her whole life, I can get it. Here, however, I want to ask, what the hell is Damon’s problem, really?
This is therapy-lit, and I would rather just reach for an Agatha Christie murder mystery. If we can readily mock Christie or Stieg Larsson (insert name of any popular author here) for writing such intellectually-unstimulating books, I’m uncertain how we reward writers like Galgut on the other hand with Booker nominations for being passably, appropriately and prettily boring. Towards the end of the book, Galgut writes, “Things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except only in memory.” True enough, one thinks, but so what? We have crossed oceans with Damon. We have slept among strangers and washed bedpans in filthy hospitals and entered into customs checkpoints with Damon, but we need never have left the first page and never have gone anywhere. Everything is still the same.