The Good Doctor
by Damon Galgut
Atlantic Books £10.99, pp240
If it wasn't for the beauty of its author's prose, this might be a profoundly depressing novel. But despite bleak central themes - the danger and dishonesty of unexamined idealism and the ineluctable fallibility of human nature, even in times of promise - Damon Galgut's gloomy tapestry of post-apartheid South Africa is so finely woven that it serves as redemption from its own world-weariness.
Frank Eloff is a self-centred, underachieving doctor whose inertia has trapped him in a subordinate position at his rural hospital posting. Hamstrung by lack of funds and the indifference of staff and patients alike, the hospital is symbolic of an ongoing failure to regenerate the area, a former homeland of the apartheid regime. Frank is comfortable in his pessimism, which is confirmed by the ghoulishness of the town in which he works, until the arrival of a wide-eyed young medic, Laurence Waters, with whom he is forced to share a room.
Laurence has deliberately chosen a tough assignment, hoping to make a contribution to his country's bright new future. But as the pair form a fragile friendship, Frank's cynicism soon seems more realistic than his colleague's naive optimism, which is undermined by arrogance, flawed judgment and the cosmetic adjustments he makes to his family history. Whereas Frank has been beaten by his torment, which stems from a broken marriage and a nagging conscience at being party to torture during a spell in the army, Laurence masks his insecurities with an urgent need to do good, a need which is ultimately self-serving and destructive.
Deservedly long-listed for the Booker, The Good Doctor is a triumph of understatement, drawing its reader subtly into the political debris which forms the unspoken motivation for its characters' every move. With his narrator's sparse and poignant use of language, Galgut brilliantly encapsulates the languor of a society still reeling from the past, not yet confident of its future, and unwilling to confront the hard realities of either.
The resulting despondency is played out most painfully on the level of personal relationships, which are doomed by an inability to deal with past trauma. ('I felt uncomfortable being linked with Laurence... the word "friend" had associations for me. Mike had been my friend, until he ran off with my wife. Since then, I hadn't made any friends. I didn't want anyone getting too close.')
Continuing to engage the reader in a story that delivers more by its protagonists' failure to communicate than with what they say is Galgut's chief accomplishment. His characterisations may often be oblique, but this only accentuates the emptiness which permeates Eloff's world view. Barely a sentence does not hang heavy with subtext.
If there is a failing, it is in the appearance of Laurence's girlfriend, another confused idealist who is attempting to blot out her American middle-class heritage by changing her name from Fiona to Zanele and dedicating her life to voluntary work. Though necessary for the purpose of revealing Laurence's untruths, she largely duplicates his failings and so distracts from the uneasy but compelling dynamic between the two doctors.
In a work of impressive depth and focus, this is a minor quibble. The Good Doctor's persistent melancholia can sometimes be hard to swallow - but the sugar in the pill is Galgut's gentle handling, steady pace and, ultimately, his empathy with characters who might otherwise seem hopelessly lost.
The Good Doctor Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
The Good Doctor is set in a neglected, deserted, ill-supplied and crumbling rural hospital. The hospital is in the predominately poor, black section of post-apartheid South Africa which was previously called the homelands. The book opens with the arrival of Dr. Laurence Waters who is a recent medical school graduate with high ideals and a need to "make a difference." The initial and prophetic pronouncement made upon him by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned veteran physician is that Dr. Walters won't last.
There is a minimal staff at the hospital. In addition to Frank there is only; Dr. Ngema, the administrator and head surgeon; the Santanders, a couple of doctors originally from Cuba; and Tehogo, who does the work of both a nurse and an orderly, but without proper qualifications. Dr. Ngema has been at the hospital many years, awaiting her 'promotion' to a job at a larger, better facility in the city. Frank originally came to this post as her replacement, but when her promotion fell through and she stayed, Frank also stayed on to await her eventual exit. The staff is an interesting cast of misfits; Dr. Ngema whose medical skills are fading professes a desire for change but is constantly working against change; The Santanders who are both miserable and fight constantly with each other; Tehogo who is sullen, mysterious and a bit threatening; and Frank who is apathetic, weak, bitter and pessimistic.
Dr. Laurence Waters joins this mixture of personalities as an idealistic agent of change with little wisdom and no tact. Laurence is shocked at the condition of the hospital which is literally falling apart. The hospital has little furniture, because it has been looted. Lawrence is also surprised at the lack of patients. The doctor has come to the hospital to do meaningful work and to make a difference but there are few patients in the hospital. Of the few patients that are in the hospital, the ones with anything but the most minor complaints must be referred to the "big" hospital in the city due to the lack of supplies and equipment in his hospital.
Eventually Laurence comes up with a plan to hold clinics in nearby villages both to minister to the people and to make them aware of the existence of the hospital. The entire staff is skeptical about Lawrence's idea, but they do hold the first clinic which is such success that it brings renewed optimism to the hospital staff.
A second clinic is planned, but never happens because a chain of tragic events unfolds, beginning with the shooting of Tehogo and ending with the demise of both him and Laurence.
The two protagonists, Frank and Laurence, oppose one another and yet in many ways they are very similar. Frank's pessimistic resignation and wasted potential clash with Laurence's almost other-worldly idealism and his drive to do good. Laurence is often forces Frank to face his many demons. Laurence also reminds Frank of what he is not. For both of these reasons, Frank resents him. Both of the doctors have dysfunctional love lives. Frank, having lost his wife to his best friend and business partner, now restricts his involvement with women to primal sex with Maria, a village woman who owns the souvenir shop. Although Maria is the name she gives Frank, it is not her real name. Laurence is involved with Zanele, an American who changed her name from Linda in order to adopt a more 'African' identity for her work in the villages. The only thing she and Laurence have in common is their idealism and, after an awkward visit to see him at the hospital, Zanele ends their relationship.
In the end; Dr. Ngema gets her transfer to the big hospital; Frank takes over her post; Claudia Santander leaves her husband and returns to Cuba; Tehogo and Laurence are kidnapped by hostile forces and are presumed dead which fulfills Frank's prophecy. As The Good Doctor comes to an end, people have come and gone, but nothing has changed, nor do we feel that it will. Laurence's idealism has been swallowed up in reality and once again, it is Frank who survives.
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