In the unusually high praise of Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart and great doomsayer of South African letters, the work of novelist Damon Galgut occupies something of a vaunted position: “If there is a posterity, The Good Doctor will be seen as one of the great literary triumphs of South Africa’s transition, a novel that is in every way the equal of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” So sayeth Malan—and I’m inclined to agree. The Good Doctor, Galgut’s 2003 Booker Prize–nominated novel, was a tense psychological examination of modern South Africa; The Impostor, his 2008 follow-up, cut perhaps even deeper. This month, Europa Editions publishes Galgut’s latest book, In a Strange Room, a series of linked travel stories told in the shifting perspectives of a South African wanderer named Damon. It has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as well, which will be announced tomorrow. Galgut recently answered questions by e-mail before leaving his home in Cape Town for the festivities in London.
In a Strange Room is made up of three journeys, each first published in The Paris Review. How did you conceive of these pieces coming together to form a unified whole?
I wrote the first two pieces about ten years ago, but the book still felt incomplete, out of balance somehow. It was only with the addition of the third part, about three years ago, that everything finally cohered. And as is often the case with novels, at least in my case, the unity was felt rather than logically thought out. I’m often the last person to understand that what I sense has a rational basis to it. In this case, it has to do with the three relationships the book deals with. The first is about power. The second is about love. The third is about guardianship, taking care of somebody in need. And when you stop to consider it, these are the three primary forms of human relationships. If you have a connection with another person, not necessarily a positive connection, it’s going to take the form of one or more of these relationships. So that’s the thematic unity of the book, the invisible architecture behind the words. And it’s at no point spelled out, so readers have to sense it in much the same way I did.
You’ve described how there was a discussion with your editors at the magazine about how to label these stories, whether fiction or memoir. And, indeed, there’s been some debate in the English press as to whether the book should qualify as a novel and be eligible for the Booker Prize. Why did you call it fiction?
Actually, it was the people at The Paris Review who decided to call it fiction. I was very happy with that choice, because it points up what I consider to be the real subject of the book, namely memory. Think about the voice of the book. Is it speaking with the authority of memoir or travelogue? No, this is a voice that switches continually between first and third and second person, doubling back to correct itself, musing about how unsure it is of this or that detail. It’s the voice of memory, in short, which is also the voice of fiction. What do I mean by that? Well, firstly, there is the obvious point that none of us remember the same events in the same way. You only have to listen to witnesses speaking in a courtroom to be sure of that. But also, maybe less obviously, I believe that we construct our memories in the same way that a story-writer constructs a fiction. The memory of any moment or event is made up of a disparate jumble of impressions and perceptions, out of which we pick in retrospect what we think of as the “central” or “meaningful” ones. And we do this far more keenly when we link events into a narrative, which a journey or a relationship inevitably is. One thing leads to a second thing, which leads to a third … but the links are a form of meaning we bring after the fact. We raise certain memories into prominence and drop others out of sight to serve this purpose. All of us do it, all the time, making up the stories of our lives as we go along. How is this different to the fiction writer creating meaning?
This book is also a departure for you in terms of territory—it’s often set very far from the travails of present-day South Africa. After The Good Doctor and The Impostor, did you want to explore a different angle as a rootless South African abroad?
Yes, it was a huge relief to be free of history for a while. Traveling is one of few zones of experience where you are not directly plugged into the world around you. You’re not part of the society you’re passing through. It was a way for me to remain a South African without having to feel answerable to the usual set of South African questions, which I can tell you often feels, in a literary sense, very tedious indeed.
There is a line in the beginning of The Good Doctor where a character says, “The past has only just happened. It’s not past yet.” Do you have the sense that there’s a wealth of novelists exploring South Africa’s recent history right now? I’m thinking of writers like Zakes Mda, Achmat Dangor, Troy Blacklaws, and Zoe Wicomb, among others.
I should confess that I’m woefully under-read in South African fiction. But it seems obvious that there’s been an explosion of local writing in the past fifteen years. A lot of these writers are dealing with “the past that’s not past yet.” Perhaps that’s inevitable when any free expression was stifled while the past was actually unfolding. In any case, I think there’s a common feeling that we need to break free from the past, and not just in a historical sense. Local writers are trying to escape a rigid set of moral gestures, if I can put it like that, which have imposed repetition upon us. Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn’t so easy to do.
This is the second time you’ve been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. How are you approaching it all this year?
Well, I’m approaching it with the knowledge of how awful it all is, which will hopefully make it less awful.
Finally, I’m curious about your writing life: I know in the past you’ve spent large parts of the year traveling and writing in India (described in the book’s final section, “The Guardian”). What first drew you to India and have you managed to get much work done there?
I first went to India because of my interest in yoga, hoping to go to the Iyengar Centre in Pune for a while. That didn’t work out, but I ended up on a beach in Goa, writing. And for various reasons that was a good spot for me to work in, and I kept going back, often for six-month stretches. I wrote a lot of The Good Doctor and The Impostor there. I think the fact that it was far from South Africa helped to give me some perspective on the themes. In addition to which the warmth and good food and cheap prices, combined with total anonymity, were conducive to a creative state of mind. It became my “other place” for a while. Though I think that’s changed, alas, partly because of the events described in the third part of the book.