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December 19, 2010

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Trials of travel reveal sad reality of life

FOR Damon, the white South African protagonist of "In a Strange Room," travel is a mostly pleasureless compulsion. In each of the three linked stories that make up this novel, he moves from place to place "in acute anxiety," like a fever running its course. He is fleeing something - a romantic disappointment is mentioned in the first story, and hints of post-apartheid moral exhaustion pervade all three. Yet what he experiences over the course of his travels is not the fool's paradise of distraction from himself but just the opposite: the steady revelation of a central aspect of his character. By the third story, sad reality of life seems to be asserting itself through Damon's quest to keep himself moving, long past any hope that his travels will heal him. Written in spare, controlled prose, these stories have a powerful cumulative effect that is on one level hard and comfortless, yet somehow also tender and humane.

With its central character sharing its author's name, "In a Strange Room" seems to fall somewhere between novel and memoir, and Galgut has said that Damon's experiences are taken from his own life.

In the first story, "The Follower," Damon is walking in Greece when he encounters Reiner, a beautiful, long-haired German. The two begin an odd relationship that takes them on a long walking trip in Africa and ends in Damon snapping and acting in a way that will estrange them forever. But back home, he realizes that Reiner is telling mutual friends another version of the story, in which Damon is the bad guy. There's something creepily recognizable about the tale. Drawn to the seeming freedom of a journey into the wilderness, Damon ends up chained to an inchoate drama of command and control, summoned by his own demons.

"The Lover," which takes place a few years later, has Damon traveling to Zimbabwe. There he falls in a French man and Swiss twins, a man and a woman. As they drift through days at a beach in Malawi, then on to more border crossings, separations and reunions, Damon's unease centers on the sexual pull between him and the Swiss man, Jerome. In its plaintive depiction of travel as paralysis of the heart, "an absence of love," the story is so emotionally honest it almost bridges the gap it describes.

Damon can't live up to the roles in which he casts himself - follower and lover - and in the final story, "The Guardian," that failure turns horrific as he can't protect a mentally ill friend from catastrophe in India.

Galgut describes the confusion and emotional chaos of dealing with the mentally ill with riveting precision. And although he taps into deep reserves of grief, he also finds humor in Damon's situation, lost in a hellish Indian hospital bureaucracy as he tries to save the unhinged Anna. The story unfolds like a psychological thriller even as its conclusion seems, in retrospect, inevitable. "The force from which she must be protected," Damon realizes, "is inside her." Of course, that also applies to Damon himself. Among the many fine observations about the roots of his travel-mania that have been planted throughout this subtle and wildly original book, perhaps the most basic is never stated outright: He is endlessly fleeing a South Africa that resides, ultimately, in his own ravaged psyche.


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