Palimpsest  

Go Back   Palimpsest > Reviews > Book Reviews

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 7th Oct 2003, 21:10   #1
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Damon Galgut

Well, only a week until the Booker Prize winner is announced and I have only read one of the shortlist: Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor.

I must say it's quite the grimmest book I've read all year. No humour or lightness of mood permeates its 220 pages - it's all black and bleak in there. In that sense, all the comparisons with Graham Greene, and with Galgut's countryman and Nobel laureate J.M. "Laughing Boy" Coetzee, are bang on. That's not to say it's not a good book - indeed, the sheer weight of its sustained misanthropy and heaviness of heart is in a way a heroic achievement. What, didn't he want to put any jokes in there at all, I kept asking myself? Any purely pleasurable human contact? Apparently not.

Anthony Burgess described novels as taking two forms, the "A-type" and the "B-type", the former being driven by story and characterisation and psychological realism in theme, and the latter being more of an artful arrangement of words. Most literary novels are somewhere in the middle - Martin Amis would be closer to the B end of the scale, and Damon Galgut is, like Greene, firmly in the A range, although the prose is more delicately written and carefully weighted than that might suggest. The narrator - and one of the doctors who may or may not be the good one of the title - is Frank Eloff, who for several years has been whittling his life away in a dying ramshackle hospital in the South African homelands (which term Galgut helpfully glossaries for us at the start: "impoverished and underdeveloped areas of land set aside by the apartheid government for the 'self-determination' of its various black 'nations'"). He is white, like the young doctor who comes to stay and work at the hospital, Laurence Waters. He ends up sharing a room with Frank.

Laurence has ideas for growing the hospital and making it thrive: which Frank doesn't understand, seemingly prepared like the half-dozen other staff to let it dry out and die. The book follows the uneasy friendship that grows up between the two doctors, and the involvement which Laurence has in the various bland features of Frank's life, all of which, like the hospital, are temporary and uncertain: the bar and disused hotel which provides the area's only poor entertainment; the souvenir shack where Frank carries on an affair with the proprietress; the home of the former apartheid 'dictator' known as The Brigadier. Frank then has an affair with Laurence's girlfriend; Laurence starts up a successful travelling clinic to take what little ready help they have - mainly sex education and condoms - to the local poor; and things gradually come to a head, sort of.

If The Good Doctor has blinding themes they eluded me. On Newsnight Review someone spoke darkly of "whether Laurence Waters even exists" and about the book being a danger sign of South Africa becoming the next Zimbabwe, but I didn't get any unreliability from Frank as a narrator (and God knows I'm always on the lookout for it), and I'm too internationally dumb to take subtle political representations that aren't spelled out. I think it is possible to be too low-key and too reluctant to give things away, and when every conversation is uneasy and every action and motive strained and wrung out, as they are here, it's all too easy for the reader to want to skip along on the surface and not get dragged down with it. Certainly it's an artful and well-written and uncompromising book, and the Booker judges need not fear accusations of populism on this one, but I don't think it's inspiring or original enough to take the prize either.
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Oct 2003, 15:54   #2
lancs vegas
Junior Palimpsestarian
is new to Palimpsest
 
Join Date: 4 Aug 2003
Posts: 14
Default

Just finished Yellow Dog before reading this novel, and completely agree we're looking at polar opposites. (Incidentally, always find Burgess' remark a useful reference point, thanks for reminding me of it)

It is all rather Greene-land: found the character of Frank very reminiscent of Scobie.

I was fortunate enough to read this with a visit to SA fresh in the mind, so maybe the mood of the novel hung disproportionately heavily round me. Nevertheless, there is a real quality - perhaps it's as simple as monotony of tone - which reaches out and draws you into the stasis. Feels a bit like bathing in aspic.

Don't think this one's off the Booker radar. Off to read Vernon God Little - consider me consumer evidence of the marketing benefits of Booker shortlisting
lancs vegas is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 9th Jul 2008, 21:44   #3
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Damon Galgut: The Good Doctor

Damon Galgut is one of those authors who justifies the existence of literary prizes. Without its multiple shortlistings - Booker, Impac, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize - few, at least in the UK, would have come across his fine 2003 novel The Good Doctor. Since then his backlist has been drip-fed to us, while he laboured over his next novel. Here it is at last, worth the wait, and perhaps the best new book I’ve read this year.



When reading The Impostor I began to think about the other South African novelists I have read: not a long list, probably beginning and ending with the big ones, Coetzee and Gordimer. I set to wondering why it is that their books - like Galgut’s - seem imbued with a dry, almost monochrome air, as though bleached by the harsh sun. Certainly Galgut is as somber as his Nobel-winning fellows. It might be something to do with South Africa being so freighted with significance in its modern history: the writer can be more spare, allow the reader’s knowledge to provide texture and, um, colour.

This, in fact, seems to be a central theme of The Impostor: how people respond to history. For Adam Napier, through whose eyes the story is told, the upheavals in South African society give rise to change in his own life: they were, after all, the reason for the loss of his job (”It was a deep, cold shock to discover that the young black intern he’d been training for the past six months was, in fact, being groomed to replace him. His boss had been apologetic, talking about racial quotas and telling him it was nothing personal. But how could it not be personal?”). He moves from Johannesburg to a rural area, where he takes over a tumbledown shack owned by his brother.

Quote:
The air inside was dead and heavy, as if it had been breathed already. The furniture was a depressing mixture of old, clunky pieces interspersed with the tastelessly modern. The four rooms were functional and barren. There was no carpeting on the concrete floor, no picture on the walls, no softness anywhere. All of it was immured in a thick, brown pelt of dust. There was the distinct sense that time had been shut outside and was only now flowing in again behind them, through the open front door.
Here, Adam feels “the absence of history … there was only the land, rolling and vast and elemental.” He takes to writing - or planning - poetry, and solitude makes his mind “a little loose, a little displaced on its foundations.”

Quote:
It wasn’t a bad feeling, to be sure - and that was the danger. You went a bit further and it felt okay, so you went a bit further still. This was how people lost track, the mental rivets popping out one by one. It crept up on you, the slow dereliction of the senses, till one day you were holed up in a ruin, beard all the way to your knees, defending your territory with a shotgun.
He is surprised one day, then, to be dragged back to reality by hearing himself addressed by an embarrassing schoolboy nickname, and to encounter Canning, an old schoolfriend whom Adam can’t remember. Galgut’s balance is superb in their opening scenes - the starting blocks of the story - where the reader is not always sure whether this is all really happening. (To add to the postmodern self-awareness, the author even appears as a set of initials carved into a school desk in Adam’s memory. “Who was DG and why are his initials haunting him now?”)

Canning lives with his wife Baby in an artificial nature reserve which he inherited from his father, and the palatial home he has built on it “is like an old colonial dream of refinement and exclusion, which should have vanished when the dreamer woke up.” His response to the freshly-minted history of South Africa is to view the point of change as an end rather than a beginning. “What I wouldn’t give to rewind to that time,” he says, ostensibly (and also) about his childhood. “Before we grew up and realised how complicated the world was.” Canning plans to exact a revenge on the past for letting him down, which will drag Adam into a very modern world of corporate greed and political corruption.

There is also a Greeneish thread in the book (the spirit of Greene often seems nearby when reading Galgut) of unsatisfying adultery, as Adam, Baby and Canning form the never simple ABC of a love triangle. Simultaneously, Adam is battling the new officious regulations of the region and struggling to find beauty in his poetry and also his garden, which resists his attempts to remove its own history:

Quote:
He bends down and tears one of the little plants out. It comes away easily, a translucent filament topped with two bright leaves. It is months away from becoming the tough, thorny adversary he’s been dealing with. But it will: the future is encoded in its cells. Generations of seeds are lying dormant under the surface, waiting for his labours to release them. The very means of clearing the yard is what will fill it again.
If this seems to be hammering the point that ‘the past is not dead; it’s not even past’ then this is, for me, the book’s only weakness. Galgut never omits an opportunity to raise the spectre of history, and while it’s entirely satisfying - exciting, even - to see how he approaches it from many angles, and how everything is in the right place, at times I would have liked fewer authorial nudges. Similarly, if you’re going to write a book called The Impostor, where a key question for the reader is clearly going to be who or what in the novel that word can apply to, then don’t include a line like, “He is not the only one whose connection to Canning is built on lies; he is not the only impostor.”

But this is a minor quibble, and even these over-enthusiastic elements begin to fade as the surprisingly gripping (almost too gripping) plot takes hold, and reaches its terrible, inevitable but appropriate conclusion. Galgut can also pull out a just-so phrase when he feels like it: a line of mountains “stood out like a strip torn from the sky.” The Impostor is a magnificent achievement: feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this. It should outdo The Good Doctor in prize shortlists and might even win a few. History will be the judge of that.

(maybe even ? Ask me again in a few months)
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 9th Aug 2010, 22:19   #4
KevinfromCanada
Palimpsestarian
is a palimpsestin' fool!
 
KevinfromCanada's Avatar
 
Join Date: 3 Jun 2009
Location: Calgary, Alberta
Posts: 642
Default Re: Damon Galgut

Yoicks -- only three posts in seven years for an outstanding author. I know JS is having some issues with this novel so I thought I would sneak in with my very long review first. (Surely that would qualify this thread for the Palimpsest "longest average post" award?)

I would characterize Damon Galgut as an author who is on the verge of the moment, waiting for the breakthrough that vaults him from the ranks of the “very good” to “he has to be read”. He has certainly had success. The Good Doctor and The Impostor both have substantial prize credentials; I was one of many who were very disappointed when The Impostor was not on the 2008 Booker longlist. So, will In A Strange Room be the book that moves him over the next barrier? I am only halfway through the 2010 Man Booker shortlist, but I think it might be just that. It is by far the best book on the longlist that I have read so far; I find it difficult to imagine what novel might overtake it.

In A Strange Room is a short book, only 180 pages in the version that I read, the first time in one sitting. And I admit that when I turned the final page then, I went right back to the start and read it again — this review is the product of two readings. Galgut’s novel comes in three parts, each of about 60 pages, all featuring the same central character: “Damon”. He is a traveller, a trekker actually, who is at home on the road, not at home:
Quote:
The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstances. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.
“Always away, away”. It is a phrase worth remembering when considering this book.
Damon, like Galgut, is a South African and in the first section — “The Follower” — we meet him in Greece where he is on one of his travelling expeditions. Based in Mycenae, he is on his way to explore some ruins when he sees another trekker, walking towards him. This person (shades of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers here, if you know that book) is dressed all in black, even his pack is black. They meet, converse briefly, and part. The two were heading in opposite directions when they met on the path but the chance meeting becomes ominous when the stranger (Reiner) shows up at Damon’s hostel that night and has requested a bed in the same room.
Part one of this traveller’s tale is the story of Reiner and Damon. They agree to set a trekking agenda for the future that will see them explore together — not in Greece, but later on in the south of Africa. Reiner works for a bit in the meantime in Canada as a tree-planter (yes, that is a lucrative fill-in job for those who trek) and then shows up. The two agree to a plan to aggressively trek Lesotho, make arrangements and head there by bus — “Reiner sits on the back seat, his rucksack on his knees and his head on his rucksack, earplugs wedged into his ears”. Damon has a different experience after they arrive at a way station:
Quote:
I wander around and come back, then wander again. A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.
Read that excerpt again, because it illustrates one of the very real strengths of this novel. Galgut tells most of it in the third person but every now and then (as in that paragraph) the first person intercedes. Sometimes the first person is there in the present, sometimes he is observing in memory. It is not a jarring technique in any way — the author wants the reader to join him in observing what happens from three points of view — the omniscient narrator, the person in the present and that person looking back on what happened. Part of what is so impressive with this book is the way that Galgut manages those three perspectives so effectively — we see the present from outside, we experience the present as if we are there, we look back on what happened and how it touched us.
Damon and Reiner trek and eventually fall apart. Whatever Damon was seeking in his hiking partner (and yes there are strong homosexual overtones to that) he doesn’t find. And he doesn’t know how to break the search and the split is more than awkward. If trekking represents a search for escape, this route doesn’t work.
In part two, “The Lover”, Damon is hiking in Zimbabwe — not much has changed for him and he still sees wandering as his path out. This time, he runs into and joins a group of First World hikers and Galgut has some fun in portraying that cliche. Damon, on the other hand, is transfixed by a group of three Europeans whose paths always seem to overlap with his own group, whom he is rapidly disinclined to keep following. The travel metaphor here is quite different:
Quote:
In this state travel isn’t a celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by bored anguish of staying still. He spends a few days in Harare, then goes down to Bulawayo. He does the obligatory things required of visitors, he goes to the Matopos and sees the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, but he can’t produce the necessary awe or ideological disdain, he would rather be somewhere else. If I was with somebody, he thinks, with somebody I loved, then I could love the place and even the grave too, I would be happy to be here.
If Part One represents Damon looking for a fellow traveller, Part Two is about his dependence — the hope that his travelling will produce a contact on whose coattails he can ride to the future. No secret, but this doesn’t work out either.
I am going to give Part Three — “The Guardian” — the short shrift here, even though it may be the strongest part of the book. In the first two parts, Damon was the searcher, looking for partners and helpers. In Part Three, his urge to wander becomes in itself a prison because he is the post on whom his fellow traveller (kind of) leans, perhaps “exploits” is the better verb. Galgut moves from the single fellow traveller, to the group that beckons for a better future, to the traveller who literally represents stones in his pockets.
Quote:
There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it is a long way from home.
Those two sentences are the summary of this exceptional novel — In A Strange Room is a powerful, powerful book and an amazing achievement. In prose that is both sparse and lyrical, Galgut gives us a character — himself — who is searching and not finding. (If you liked Coetzee’s Summertime last year, buy this book now). The full picture of his central character is never really apparent but given the autobiographical references that is understandable. The three voices that he uses to tell his story create a very rare reading experience, at least for this reader, where one moves from one perspective to the other with much ease. And the result is a deeply understood — and equally deeply troubling — narrative of what might happen if you choose to “travel” to escape your demons.
These three chapters all appeared originally in the Paris Review, so if you read that publication and they sound familiar there is a reason. And for a second, equally enthusiastic opinion of the novel from a somewhat different point of view, check out Just William’s Luck.
__________________
Currently reading: Us Conductors, Sean Michaels

Collections: Dance of the Happy Shades, Alice Munro; Bark, Lorrie Moore

KevinfromCanada
KevinfromCanada is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 9th Aug 2010, 23:24   #5
Paul
Palimpsestarian
is a Palimpsester Extraordinaire
 
Join Date: 30 Sep 2005
Location: Colorado
Posts: 1,001
Default Re: Damon Galgut

Great job, Kevin. It seems like there's been a shortage of this type of in-depth review around here lately (and let me add that I have personally done nothing to change that.) I'm off to add some Galgut to my wish list.
__________________
2009 2010 2011
2012 20132014
2015
2016
Paul is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10th Aug 2010, 17:10   #6
KevinfromCanada
Palimpsestarian
is a palimpsestin' fool!
 
KevinfromCanada's Avatar
 
Join Date: 3 Jun 2009
Location: Calgary, Alberta
Posts: 642
Default Re: Damon Galgut

Paul: He is certainly worth reading. And I'll be putting messages in here to keep Galgut up on the list to attract attention.
__________________
Currently reading: Us Conductors, Sean Michaels

Collections: Dance of the Happy Shades, Alice Munro; Bark, Lorrie Moore

KevinfromCanada
KevinfromCanada is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 21st Apr 2011, 9:14   #7
Suzie
Junior Palimpsestarian
is starting to settle in
 
Join Date: 29 Oct 2010
Location: Wembley, Middx
Posts: 43
Default Re: Damon Galgut

I have to say that I enjoyed 'In a Strange Room' - which was basically three interwoven novellas on love, life and loss. The stories contained a lovely use of language that was both haunting and beautiful. Now looking forward to reading The Quarry.
Suzie is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 17th Apr 2014, 15:12   #8
Ang
Senior Palimpsester
suckles at the teat of the Palim-God
 
Ang's Avatar
 
Join Date: 25 Oct 2006
Location: UK
Posts: 3,198
Default Re: Damon Galgut

I'm in the midst of Arctic Summer, excellent stuff from Galgut yet again. It's about EM Forster and his writing of Passage to India among other things. I suspect it will be on the Booker list in a few months...
__________________
2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008=post 80611
Ang is offline   Reply With Quote
Reply


Currently Active Users Viewing This Thread: 1 (0 members and 1 guests)
 
Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT +1. The time now is 1:55.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2017, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.