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. Read More