Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lean, complex and poetic but unfrivolous (Books - The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut)

The Good Doctor pits experienced cynicism against naive idealism. In it, Laurence Waters, newly minted M.D., is required by the South African medical establishment to do one year of community service and to distinguish himself from his peers he chooses the most out-of-the-way spot he can. He must share digs with Dr. Frank Eloff, who found the spot years earlier when running from a bad divorce. If his wife running off with his best friend hadn't hardened him, then this remote, poorly funded hospital, would have. Here, any time a patient has a serious condition, they are moved to a better equipped hospital, leaving the staff hardly anything interesting to do.

Years of my life, sour with caffeine, had been sipped away in this room. A clock on the wallk stood silent and broken, the hands fixed for ever at ten to three. The only thing that had changed here since I arrived was the dartboard on the back of the door. I had brought it up from the recreation room one Sunday, hoping to while away some hours. But there are only so many times that you can throw a dart into a board before the ideas of an aim and a target begins to lose its point.

Never mind that a zen master would surely disagree, this paragraph is exemplary of Damon Galgut's writing - unusual verb choices as you might see in a poem: years in the first sentence are sipped rather than, say, passed. And we are invited to not only see and hear the scene, as usual, but also to taste its sourness. A clock's ticking is absent, but we are aware that it could be there if the clock worked. This is a place in which time has stopped, says Galgut. The hospital is a victim of politics.

'So that's it,' Laurence said suddenly. 'The other hospital. The one where everybody goes.'

I nodded heavily. 'That's it.'

'That's where all the funding's going, the equipment , the staff, all that?'

'That's it.'

'But why?'

'Why? An accident of history. A few years ago there was a line on a map, somewhere around where we're sitting now. On one side was the homeland where everything was a token imitation. On the other side was the white dream, where all the money - '

'Yes, yes, I understand that,' he said impatiently. 'But the line on the map's gone now. So why aren't we the same as them?'

I shrugged. 'I don't know, Laurence. There isn't enough money to go round. They have to prioritize.'

Laurence's idealism begins to make the director of the hospital nervous:

'I have a feeling he was looking for a different kind of hospital,' she said. 'The set-up here - it's too low-key for someone like him.'

'I agree,' I said.

'Why don't you take him around, Frank? Show him the whole place. Let him see what he's in for. Then if he want to be transferred somewhere else, I'll see what I can do.'

'All right. No problem.'

'Of course he's welcome here. I'm not saying he isn't. The community service idea - I'm in favour. I'm all for innovation and change, you know that.'

'Oh, yes,' I said. 'I know.'

Innovation and change: it was one of her key phrases, a mantra she liked to repeat. But it was empty. Ruth Ngema would go to great lengths to avoid any innovaction of change, because who knew what might follow on?

The hospital in this book is a microcosm of its setting - South Africa - where, in the context of a post-apartheid government, life is waging a battle between idealism and cynicism every day. Thank goodness that that system is now history, but however seriously intended that change was habits, budgets, hearts and minds change more slowly. Galgut has accomplished no small feat in making a book about stasis active and interesting. The writing is at once lean and complex, it is almost poetic in word choice but unfrivolous in style. I hope to finish it today, it is a splendid read.

This link includes my other post on The Good Doctor.


heather (errantdreams) said...

"Galgut has accomplished no small feat in making a book about stasis active and interesting."

High praise indeed!

Anonymous said...

adding this to the list right away, sounds wonderful

Ted said...

Verb - I think you would have a lot of appreciation for Galgut's writing and his perspective on South Africa may make an interesting contrast with your thorough reading of Gordimer.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar thought when I saw he was writing about South Africa, and I see that he's written several novels so that makes discovering him all the better!

Off topic, am reading John Banville's Eclipse at the moment - have you read this? I ask because the story is narrated by an actor and centers on his attempt to locate himself outside of "character" and "representation". Could be an interesting read, especially with your background in theatre.

Ted said...

Verb - Thanks for that recommendation - sounds very interesting and I haven't read anything by Banville - I'll give it a try. That is, as you say, right up my alley.