Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor (Penguin 2004) is regarded by many, including most of his peers, as his most accomplished yet especially in terms of his superb evocation of a bleak landscape which stands as a metaphor for the uncertain future that awaits South Africa in transition from apartheid to black rule.
The Good Doctor is a work of incredible psychological depth and perspicacious political understatement. Set deep in a spare and almost forbidding locale, in what used to be one of Apartheid South Africa’s designated homelands, it tells the story of two white doctors, one cynical, aging and almost decrepit, the other young, idealistic and impulsive.
The novel is a political novel but one that almost seems to eschew the term, preferring instead to focus on human action, their motivations and effect. The way Damon Galgut writes, every human action is a ripple that spreads in ever increasing cycles without any means of understanding how far it will go.
The end of apartheid in South Africa brought untold anxiety to the whites who had been in power for generations. The unprecedented political upheaval had profound personal effect on the people. In the years after apartheid, different South African writers, especially the white ones, have tried to grapple and come to terms with what has become of their country as power changed hands.
Nobel laureate J.M Coetzee tackled the problem in Disgrace. Andre Brink, another major South African writer had a go in The Rights of Desire. The Good Doctor is Damon Galgut’s contribution to the ongoing debate.
His novel, like those of others is told from the point of view of a white man of a certain age. Not to young not to understand, but not too old either to not feel. The men (and they are mostly men) who tell these stories are well educated, cultured and professionally trained. Equipped with the knowledge to make sense of the radical shift and tectonic upheavals, they are still confounded by what they see and experience.
There is profound angst brought about by a loss of privilege, the ascendance of blacks whom they feel are not as qualified or deserving of their positions and their attachment to the land is more deep rooted than those of the younger generation who are usually quick to emigrate to Australia or Canada.
Always in these books, a binary opposition of sorts is in play, between an older man and a younger person. In Disgrace it is Lurie and his daughter. Lurie is of the old guard and eager to perpetuate the old ways while his daughter is more pragmatic about the future of the white man in the rapidly evolving landscape of post apartheid South Africa in which the political fault lines have changed dramatically and usually with tragic consequences.
In The Rights of Desire, the opposition is between Ruben Olivier and his lodger, the enigmatic Tessa Butler, while in The Good Doctor it is between the aging Frank Eloff and the young Laurence Waters.
Damon Galgut’s novel revolves around the two doctors. It opens with “The first time I saw him I thought, he won’t last.”
Frank Eloff’s narrative is sedate, taking in the landscape just as he does human emotion and action. His new roommate and colleague is an idealistic and impulsive young man who is determined to do the work he has been trained for; to be the good doctor of the title by bringing change and life to their comatose hospital stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Frank is jaded and cynical. He has no wish to upset the routine, to bring or cause change. On exile of sorts after the collapse of his marriage, he is content to do his work or a semblance of it, snatch sexual pleasure where he finds it and let each day roll into the other but Laurence has a whole different idea of what a doctor should be doing in a rural community.
His actions, at first, cause consternation among the staff especially with Dr. Ngema, head of party, who despite her constant assurances that she is all for “innovation and change” really wants things to remain as they are until she gets her long awaited posting and hands over to Frank.
Laurence is not content to be a civil servant, he wants to be an activist, a do-gooder bringing change and this is what, at first, brings some conflict until he comes up with an idea of engaging the community around them by taking a clinic to them.
His successful clinic is like a tonic that energises the whole hospital but which also opens up the flood gates for what happens next.
The sleepy town comes alive as soldiers arrive in town and suddenly, stories and characters that were the stuff of legend and whispered conversation begin to take real shape. Frank’s past catches up with him and his clandestine affair threatens to blow up in his face as his lover gets pregnant.
In this uncertain climate comes violence and Tehogo one of the hospital staff, a young, saucy and arrogant black staff is shot and detained.
What happens next is an ironic take on how what we fight to keep at bay ultimately overwhelms us. It also shows how, always, in the new post apartheid South Africa, the white man is always the hunted and the victim.
Galgut’s triumph lies in his ability to tell the story with almost zero authorial intrusion. The narrator’s cynicism, his lack of moral fibre is key in helping establish the author’s non-partisanship.
The cataclysmic events transpiring in the outside world, as it seems, are far and remote but like waves crashing to shore, the detritus is deposited on their shore.
At the end, which is really the whole point of the book, all returns to normal, the soldiers leave, Laurence is gone, Ngema hands over to Frank, and the old familiar rhythms are re-established. Life, as always, happens to us all.