Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book #30: The Travelling Life

"But the truth is also that there is an answering impulse of subservience in him, part of him wants to give in, I see shadows thrown up in grappling contortions on the roof of the cave."  -Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room

I was planning on giving this book to a friend for her birthday, but now, a third of the way in, I don't know, I just might have to get her something else.  Even if In a Strange Room weren't a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, I still wouldn't have been able to put it down.  What is it about this dark narrative that immediately drew me in?  The first novella "The Follower" is deceptively simple: a young white South African man named Damon treks through the mountains of Lesotho under the spell of a mysterious German man named Reiner, a philosopher of sorts.  Although Damon claims not be in love with Reiner - preferring to think of their relationship as a "dark passion," an accidental interlude - it soon becomes clear that he's deeply, obsessively in love with this man and his every attempt to maintain emotional distance is bound for failure.

So intense are his feelings that he's devised a strange technique for telling his story.  The story is for the most part told in the third person, but every so often it slips into the first person, as in the passage above.  While this technique at first throws the reader off - for a moment, I thought there were three characters, a menage-a-trois - it's well worth the experiment.  For the technique pays off by opening up meanings and raising questions about what happens to you when you travel and fall in love.  The minimalist prose conveys perfectly the way that life and your identity get pared down to the bare essentials and the feeling of weightlessness can be very liberating at first; it's as if you have the freedom to create yourself anew, be anyone, try anything.  In this sense, it's as if Damon, the narrator-traveller, is watching himself in a film.  (I remember that feeling from my year in Berlin.  Back in grad school, I suddenly sold all my possessions, except my laptop and two suitcases full of books, and moved to Berlin, not knowing anyone, having chosen the place more or less randomly because I'd fallen out of love and I'd overheard some artists talking about how it was easy and cheap for foreigners to rent short-term housing there.  And all the while, I didn't feel like me, I felt deliciously free of me, like a girl in a film). 

This sense of distance, it seems to me, is what Galgut is trying to convey in writing most of the work in the third person.  And yet the "I" surfaces at key moments of passion, memory, betrayal - exposing how the work isn't entirely fiction, it hovers on the cusp of memoir.  

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

Some years ago I left a stressful, dissatisfying career and returned to graduate school with much younger classmates. Like your experience in Berlin, my experience was liberating. I felt incognito and free to learn again. Great blog!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

It takes a lot of courage to leave an unsatisfying career. But, as both our experiences show, it can be well worth the risk!


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.