“The Lover” by Damon Galgut, from The Paris Review (Winter 2008)
(Full disclosure: Once, I was at a party and got really drunk and offered to have intimate relations with Damon. He turned me down. Then, it turned out that he was not Damon Galgut, but Sam Pink. Go figure.)
I love the long short story. I like short ones, too, but I think the length of 7000 words and up may be my favorite length. “The Lover” by Damon Galgut in the Paris Review is 38 pages long. My guess is that it is approximately 10,ooo words. Galgut is the South African author of The Good Doctor, (very Graham Greenish, but with a flatter style) an accolade garnering novel I enjoyed so much I went onto Alibris and looked up his earlier work, work hard to find here at the time. I couldn’t get through a very harsh and violent book, Small Circle of Beings (I’m a pussy) and still have not picked up The Quarry, but I have enjoyed coming across his short stories in journals, (especially one that was in Zoetrope a few years ago.) “The Lover ” is classic Galgut, channelling a post-modern distance more Handke than DFW. His narrator, “Damon”, switches from primarily third person narration, to moments of first person narration. Galgut’s switching back and forth felt random to me at first, but with patience, a pattern and reason emerge. Galgut pulled me in with his cold depictions of quietly desperate people travelling around, travelling travelling, mostly in Africa. His paragraphs are all atmosphere, all slow, hot air and sexual repression. (I take the title of the story to be a bold and multi-meaning reference to Marguerite Duras’ famous novel, The Lover. ) Damon is travelling randomly to Zimbabwe from his native South Africa and finding himself disgusted with the European tourists who treat the natives direspectfully. And yet Galgut also allows an atmosphere of menace to fog the story; the bus stations and back roads and desperate people of Africa, are, without a doubt, sometimes dangerous. He meets up with a pair of Swiss twins, Jerome and Alice, who are travelling with an older Frenchman, Christian. With them, urged on by some unsaid energy between Jerome and himself, he ends up travelling further and longer up the length of his home continent than he had planned. At some point though, his group of friends will be leaving for Tanzania and he is expected to go back to South Africa. He thinks:
Returning along the same path in a any journey is depressing, but he especially fears how he might feel on this occasion.
The part of him that watches himself is still here too, not ecstatic or afraid. This part hovers in its usual detachment, looking down with wry amusement at the sleepless figure in the bunk. It sees all the complexities of the situation he’s in and murmurs sardonically into his ear, you see where you have landed yourself, you intended to visit Zimbabwe for a few days and now you find yourself weeks later in a train to Dar es Salaam. Happy and unhappy, he falls asleep in the end and dreams about, no. I don’t remember his dreams.
He leaves the group, returning to South Africa. He is full of remorse. Therefore,a few months, he flies to Europe, to stay with Jerome and Alice in their mother’s house. Disappointment and frustration ensue. Damon’s emptiness and lonliness grows. He leaves Switzerland.
Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, if you are only the dim evocation of a face under a fringe of hair, and the others too, Alice and Christian and Roderigo, if you are names without a nature, it’s not because I don’t remember, no the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as in an endless stirring and turning. But it’s only for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.
He sits in the empty room, crying.
Like in Duras’ The Lover, this is an illicit love. I believe titling the story after Duras’s book is homage and also a sort of sly joke, a way of saying, if you only knew, Duras. I am also reminded of a paragraph from The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers, another long story on love between two who should not love, a love where nothing works and love and pain are one in the same (I want to find some quote from it that is an exposition on the lover and the beloved, but that would take weeks, as I have no idea where that book is. I may have given it away.)
The distancing tools and coldness of style is punctuated with paragraphs like the one above. In general, Galgut’s style mirrors and parallels the repressed homosexuality of this lengthy, complicted story; so much is happening that can’t be said. In no way is this book JUST about that. It is also about travelling, lonliness, sexual longing in general, Africa, dumb tourists and ultimately– and why I like his work so much- about language, it’s limitations and powers, and the act of telling itself. Like Handke, Galgut writes how language fails us, and in doing so, he gives language life. Galgut is just as adept as Mann in Death in Venice at explaining a wrongful-feeling, confusing longing, a longing that really shouldn’t be wrongful, a longing that in many parts of the world remains wrapped in coded unsaidness. I think he is brilliant. There is more that I wanted to excerpt and discuss, but I leave here, so that when you read the story, you hopefully won’t think, “pr ruined it for me.”