As happy as I was to see Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question win this years Man Booker Prize, my personal choice was Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. Still, it was a tremendous Booker year for me; both Jacobson and Galgut impressed me enough that I have since tried to acquire most anything they’ve written, and that is just what I hope from a prize. First stop on this back catalog project is Galgut’s prior Man Booker Prize finalist The Good Doctor (2003).
Since In a Strange Room was a unique blend of interconnected short stories, memoir, and travel, complete with a lovely style and the masterful handling of an unnconventional narrative technique, I was interested to see how well I got on with a more conventional novel from Galgut. To be honest, as much as I liked The Good Doctor, I do not feel the same warmth toward it as I do toward In a Strange Room — but I was expecting that. So, eliminating that comparison, I’d say The Good Doctor is an exceptional novel.
This is a retrospective, first-person novel. Our narratove is Frank Eloff, a cynical doctor who is working at a hospital in a remote region of South Africa that was once a Bantu “homeland.” Before the novel begins, Galgut tells us that a “homeland” was a type of tribally-based state set up during apartheid. The Good Doctor begins after this system has been abolished, but its effects — obviously — remain.
When the book begins, Frank is a sort of second in command at the tiny hospital. For years he’s been promised that he will run the hospital when Dr. Ngema, his black boss, gets a better post, but as yet that hasn’t happened. The hospital itself is basically irrelevant.
And there were no people. That was the last thing you noticed, though you realized then that it was the first thing to give you that uneasy hollow feeling: the place was deserted.
Some people come in from time to time, but not many. And if anyone is really sick, they get sent to the bigger hospital about an hour away. Frank is resigned to his own irrelevance too. At least in this emptiness he has his own space. Then, just as the novel begins, Frank’s space is invaded by a young idealistic doctor named Laurence Waters. This is the novel’s opening line: “The first time I saw him I thought, he won’t last.”
Laurence literally invades Frank’s space by moving into his bedroom. But worse, Laurence comes to this remote post looking to make it better. He wants work that matters — to him, work is all that matters. Laurence came to this remote hospital on purpose. He asked for the most difficult assignment possible, and now he is determined to do good there. But Frank immediately tries to disillusion him.
‘Laurence,’ I said. ‘Understand one thing. This isn’t a real hospital. It’s a joke. When y0u were driving here, do you remember the last town you passed, an hour back? That’s where the real hospital is. That’s where people go when they’re sick. They don’t come here. There’s nothing here. You’re in the wrong place.’
Immediately this grouping of the cynical and experienced Frank with the idealistic and green Laurence brought to mind Graham Greene’s exceptional The Quiet American, another book that deals with a precarious state of national affairs by meddling with some volatile personal relationships where, if we’re honest, we side with the cynical character. Again, if I allowed myself such a comparison, I saw Galgut’s book as lacking while I read it; however, in the time since, it has continued to gain strength in my mind as the characters are dissociated from those in Greene and have become characters in their own right. It is about a different place and time. Where in The Quiet American we see the problems that are to come to Vietnam, in The Good Doctor we see the problems that were and how they are still present even if the system has been officially terminated. In an effort to make Laurence understand (Laurence is a bit too young to have truly experienced life in the old system), Frank explains why the people in the region do not come to the hospital in their town:
‘What do you think this place means to them? It’s where the army came from. It’s where their puppet dictator lived. They hate this place.’
As the book develops, Frank and Laurence develop an unlikely and unstable friendship. Through their experiences we see Galgut dissecting this South African society with a hard past and airy promises about the future. Of course it is going to come to head:
‘They’re right about you,’ he said slowly. It was a bitter realization. ‘I couldn’t see it before. But now I see.’
‘What do they say about me?’
‘That you’re not part of . . . of the new country.’
‘The new country,’ I said. ‘Where is it, this new country?’
‘All around you, Frank. Everything you see. We’re starting again, building it all up from the ground.’
‘Words,’ I said. ‘Words and symbols.’
‘It isn’t. It’s real. It’s happening.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why? Why are you like you are?’ It was an angry question, but he didn’t sound angry. He sounded curious and sad. ‘You’re not a bad man.’
‘Maybe I am.’
‘You’re not a bad man. But you say no to everything. It’s written on you. I don’t know what’s happened to you. You just don’t believe in anything. I don’t think you even believe what you’re saying now.’
‘I do believe it.’
The Good Doctor has many layers and many other characters besides the ones mentioned in this review. One of my favorite aspects of the novel were the assumptions Frank made about how certain events and people were connected. He too, even in his cynicism, is a bit naive. As his assumptions falter one by one, leaving him and the reader with no solid understanding of what has happened, Frank is free to become even more cynical and isolated in his irrelevance.