Friday, 5 March 2004

Damon Galgut: The Good Doctor (2003)

Edition: Atlantic, 2003
Review number: 1226

During the apartheid regime in South Africa, the regions set aside as "homelands" were supposed to be some kind of showcase for the idea that there was some measure of freedom for black people. (The phrase used was "self-determination for native peoples".) Even then, they generally seem to have been rather sad places; the South African government used some of the less appealing land in the country for the homelands, much like the land provided by the US government for native American reservations in the nineteenth century. After the fall of the regime, the homelands were quietly reabsorbed; few other countries had even recognised their existence as independent states. The most famous place in a homeland was Sun City in Bophuthatswana, the Las Vegas of South Africa and somewhere which allowed foreigners to visit the country and have the homeland status as a sop to their consciences (but which inspired the protest song I Ain't Gonna Play Sun City).

This is the first of Damon Galgut's novels I have come across, though I gather he is quite an established South African writer. The Good Doctor is set in one of the former homelands, which remains unnamed, in a hospital in its one-time capital. The area is forgotten, the town virtually a ghost town and the hospital is empty, run by a small group of doctors well aware that a job there is a dead end posting. The place is so run down that all the difficult cases are immediately transferred to the much better equipped hospital just across the line which used to be the border.

Frank, the narrator, is a middle aged doctor who has been at the hospital for some time. He has sunk into a slothful state, in a stasis because the job promised him on arrival - to take over as head of the hospital - has not materialised even after several years. He, like the other doctors, has his own reasons for accepting the pointless life he leads at the hospital (the opposite of the stereotypical picture of doctors as dedicated), and he is quite comfortable in a settled and slothful kind of way.

But then the hospital is changed utterly by the arrival of Lawrence, a young, naive and dangerously keen doctor, newly qualified, starting a year's placement there. Because of a lack of usable space, he has to share Frank's room; the accommodation is as run down as the patient care. The Good Doctor is an account of their strange friendship, a kind of companionship based around their major differences in outlook and personality. (These differences are perhaps meant to say something about the changes apparent in personalities shaped before and after the end of apartheid.)

The Good Doctor is a slow novel, as might be expected from the location in a forgotten backwater. What is is about is more atmosphere; it is one of the best depictions of melancholy inertia I have ever read. Mind you, inertia is not that popular a topic for a novel, but it is certainly a difficult task - to make the central theme of a novel something which militates against a dynamic plot. The doctors are unhappy, but are unable to make the effort of will required to move on. The hospital, like the rest of the former homeland, is forgotten and decaying. There are echoes of other writers - the style made me think of a downbeat version of Alexander McCall Smith, and I was also reminded of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. (Part of both these reminders are probably due to the African setting common to all three novels - though of course I don't think that the continent is not as uniform as this might suggest!) Even with these echoes, though, The Good Doctor is an original and powerful novel.

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