Phillippe Claudel, author of the amazing Brodeck's Report, has a new novel out in translation, Monsieur Linh and His Child. According to the reviewers it is written with his customary lack of specificity that intrigues me and it is the second part of the haunting trilogy that concluded with Brodeck and started with Grey Souls. Anne Enright gets massive coverage for her new novel, Forgotten Waltz. This promises to be less dark than The Gathering but with plenty of her caustic wit, this one using the Celtic Tiger economy as her backdrop.
The Guardian persists with its genuflections to the gods of English writing with a panegyric of Christopher Hitchens by Martin Amis last week. One would almost be forgiven for thinking the Hitch had passed on and this was his eulogy. Or maybe Amis just wants the 'great man' to know what a sound fellow he, Amis, is. Amis quotes, at length, various examples of what he considers great witticisms by Hitchens, the 'rebel', as he calls him. It is a grave error to confuse witticism with plain rudeness. Far cleverer ripostes can be heard in any Dublin pub!
I cannot pass over the brief dismissal of Damon Galgut and his book, In a Strange Room, by Alfred Hickling. This was one of the titles nominated for the Booker and is Galgut at his best. It is a departure from his normal stamping ground of post apartheid South Africa, being set worldwide from Greece to India and finally Africa. The narrator always referred to as ‘he’, in the third person but who not surprisingly is called Damon - a device popular also with Paul Auster - is an inveterate traveller who on each trip either meets or is joined by different characters. The very act of travelling has a curious meaning for him. He says at one point that ‘everything at times of transition takes on a symbolic weight and power. But this too is why he travels. The world you’re moving through flows into another one inside…’ So the reality of travel becomes fiction and memory. Borders are lines on a map but also drawn inside himself somewhere. Memory is a key factor in his writing and he refers to ‘him’, the traveller, as buried under his skin. He frequently claims he cannot remember some details, that there is a memory gap as if he were a travel writer not telling a story.
The book is divided into three sections titled the The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian. If one could have any quarrel with Galgut is that these sections might well, with editing, have worked almost better as three novellas. Tightened up to that format, they would almost have a ring of Zweig. However, in their present format what obviously links them is our narrator. True to his propensity for travel caused by restlessness when too long at home, he is further uncomfortable in any relationship that might tie him in any way. This can lead to a vacillation that at times makes one want to shake him but it is a state of mind that Galgut is very at ease writing about. At times, one almost feels one is back with the Good Doctor – also shortlisted for
the Booker - so maybe Galgut puts more of himself into his main characters either consciously or unconsciously.
The characters Damon meets and links up with on his travels are distinct and remarkable. It is a tribute to his skill that they stay in one’s mind long after the book is finished almost like old friends. Though in Damon’s case, none of them are destined ever to be old friends and his depiction of their foibles and idiosyncracies is
masterly. Galgut’s writing has justly been described as both powerful and hypnotic and I would defy anyone to read him and not feel a personal attachment to some of his thoughts.