There are two authors on this year’s Booker longlist who will win the Booker one day – David Mitchell, who fell at the shortlist hurdle (I’m maintaining a dignified silence about that) and Damon Galgut whose The Good Doctor was the surprising find during the 2003 season. So popular was that read, that Galgut’s publishers rushed out the infinitely inferior The Quarry from his backlist. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’d rate The Good Doctor 4 and The Quarry 1. It will be interesting to see where I stand on In A Strange Room because at the start of this review, I don’t know.
Settling down to open the book, my heart sank. “A major writer worthy to be referred to as a kindred spirit of the great Coetzee” blurbs The Irish Times. Oh no. I have a literary scotoma when it comes to Coetzee. As a result I have not read any of his fictional autobiography – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one – but one which Galgut has emulated in this work, using an increasingly popular device of inserting himself as a character into his fiction. Alberto Manguel has done the same in his new novel (All Men are Liars), as did Manuel Syjuco in his Asian Booker Prize winning, Ilustrado.
Syjuco said he used the device to confuse fact and fiction. Galgut’s more straightforward: “the project was to recall, as honestly and truthfully as I could, three journeys that I’ve taken at different points in my life.” Memoir then, fictional in so far as a story from an individual point of view cannot be the whole truth.
the friend listens sympathetically but also with doubt, he can see in his face that he has heard another version of things from Reiner, the second story unwritten here.
How does a memoir – a travelogue even – come to be on the Booker shortlist? I appear to be the only blogger asking this question. What am I missing?
That said, In A Strange Room is a wonderfully crafted piece. The landscapes through which Damon travels are vividly brought to life as are his travelling companions. I wouldn’t want to accompany him on his travels though. Uneasy in his own skin, for reasons which remain unexplained, he travels to find peace. Which is a guarantee that it’s not going to happen.
So underneath the journey is a conflict, almost another journey in itself, a struggle for ascendancy, which as the days go by begins to push through the surface.
In each story he is cast in a different role: the follower, the lover, the guardian and in each there is an underlying struggle: for power in the first, for love in the second, for survival in the third. These struggles provide the narrative drive, cohesion, and moods of varying hue, growing in intensity until the climax in that final, harrowing and unforgettable third story, with the shoe on the other foot and echoes of Damon’s bad behaviour in the first.
I was fascinated. The only negative in the style was the switching between third and first person narratives. Observing his actions, Galgut writes of himself in the third person. Noting his feelings at the time of the events he’s narrating , he switches to first. It’s that journey within a journey again. Only it was too obvious a trick and it spoilt an excellent piece of writing for me.
Will Galgut win the Booker? If I were judging, I could not reconcile awarding the prize for best novel to a series of autobiographical novellas, even if they are literary. I wonder, however, if Galgut had called his protagonist anything but Damon, would I have the same doubts? Told you I didn’t know what I thought. Seems I still don’t …..