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Books

Exploring the self

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In A Strange Room By Damon Galgut Atlantic Books 192 pages, Rs 399

Proust, writing about Flaubert's Sentimental Education, remarked that much of the novel took place in the alinêas, or the gaps between paragraphs and sections. The same could be said of Damon Galgut's intriguing new novel.

There are strong echoes of Samuel Beckett's How It Is in Galgut's novel. These come at a visual level - Beckett's novel uses separated individual paragraphs, though without punctuation or clear sentence structure - and in some consonances of subject matter. Beckett's narrator is crawling along in some mud, carrying with him a sack containing tinned food and a can opener, and describing his existence or 'how it is' before, during and after his relationship with the sinister Pim.

Galgut's narrator exists in a world that's apparently more normal. In 'The Follower', he goes walking in Lesotho with a German man, Rainer, and it's their power struggles and unfulfilled sexual attraction that provides the tension. In 'The Lover', Damon and a young Swiss man, Jerome, meet in Africa and then again in Switzerland;in 'The Guardian', Damon is trying to look after his mentally ill friend Anna in India, while she tries her best to commit suicide.

But the focus of these stories, a bit like Beckett's novel, is relating: the self perceives itself in relationship. So Damon, looking back on himself, writes of himself in the third person, his subject being an itinerant writer called Damon;within single paragraphs the narrator slips into and out of the first person. What's being investigated, as well as the now-usual concerns of fiction like the nature of memory, is identity or the notion of self. 'I can explain him better than my present self, ' the narrating Damon says of the narrated character.

Galgut's novel isn't willing to take the risks that Beckett's did - he cares about readability, about being accessible, and the novel is both those things. Yet, in the context of current literary fiction in English, its restraint and control and its concerns make it an unusual and important work.

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