Monday, January 30, 2012

the last book I read

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut.

Frank Eloff is a South African doctor working at a delapidated hospital in one of the old apartheid-era homelands. Now that, post-apartheid, these artifical entities have been abandoned, the hospital finds itself largely abandoned, with little for Frank and his colleagues to do, And just as well, in a way, as their pitifully small staff and even more pitiful stock of medical supplies (basically a cupboard full of condoms and a few aspirin) mean that they can only provide the most basic level of medical care anyway, any more serious cases having to go to the better-equipped hospital in the nearest town.

So it's a bit of a dead-end job for Frank, but that's OK with him - having originally fled out there to escape the trauma of his (soon to be ex-) wife running off with one of his best friends he's settled into a nice little rut now as second-in-command to the equally unambitious Dr. Ngema. The only other staff are a married couple of Cuban doctors, and a few native orderlies and handymen.

So it's something of a surprise when Laurence Waters turns up, all young and fresh-faced and gung-ho about Making A Difference and all that sort of stuff, still more so when it emerges that he's actually volunteered to come to this particular establishment, rather than seek a placement at a more luxurious urban hospital. Much to Frank's chagrin it also becomes clear that he's going to be sharing Frank's room, the hospital being long on rooms but short on furniture to go in them.

So the two doctors strike up an uneasy friendship, Laurence's puppyish enthusiasm tempered by Frank's pessimism and apathy. Laurence drags Frank along on a trip out into the bush to check out the possibility of running mobile clinics, and Frank drags Laurence along to the local bar, where the first inklings of trouble are felt - Frank recognises one of the officers in a group of soldiers in the bar, a man he had met during the bad old days of the apartheid regime when he was a young doctor who'd been dragged into a military interrogation room to assess whether a black "interviewee" was in a fit state for further questioning (the implication being that these were the sort of questions delivered with the toe-cap of a boot and various other blunt instruments).

Further complications ensue - Laurence's black girlfriend Zanele (who Frank had assumed was African, but turns out to be an American whose real name is Linda) turns up, and Frank, having been charged with entertaining her for the night, ends the evening by sleeping with her. During the same night out Frank and Zanele have also had a strange encounter with the Brigadier, a remnant of the ruling structure of the old homeland regime. But what is he doing still hanging around? Come to that, what are all those soldiers in the bar doing in town?

Then a chance trip to native handyman Tehogo's room to return some music tapes reveals to Frank that Tehogo has been stealing metal pipework and the like from the hospital, presumably to sell on as scrap. Frank, unwilling as ever to stick his head above the parapet, decides against taking the information to Dr. Ngemba, but makes the mistake of telling Laurence, whose uncompromising moral certainty means that he does tell her. By this time, of course, all the evidence has been got rid of, so nothing can be done, but an unpleasant atmosphere is caused, with resentful rumblings about racism. Eventually the simmering undercurrent of violence breaks through, as Tehogo is mysteriously shot, and then, after the doctors have struggled to save him, abducted in the dead of night, and Laurence with him. But who has done this? Frank's old army acquaintance? The Brigadier's people? And why?

The answer to all those questions is: I dunno, really. Certainly the air of futility and decay after the dismantling of the structure that, however evil, gave the hospital and community a reason to exist is very well drawn, as is the still-present danger of doing something to offend the military authorities and being mysteriously "disappeared" never to be seen again, but it's not entirely clear what conclusions we're meant to draw from the climactic events here. Laurence, as the innocent abroad blundering around with the best of intentions and unleashing all sorts of disaster in his wake, is very reminiscent of Pyle from The Quiet American, with Frank playing the world-weary Fowler role. We never really get inside his head, though, and the episode with Zanele is strangely perfunctory - after their night-time adventures (of various kinds, indoor and outdoor) she pretty much disappears from the story, and Laurence never finds out about Frank's betrayal. So while it's nicely written and the subject matter is interesting, it's slightly uninvolving. It is considerably more linear than Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, though, with which it shares a setting (although that was set while the apartheid regime was still in place); on the other hand it's less ambitious, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.

The Good Doctor was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, the year the prize was won by DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little. The only other book I've read from that year's list is Zoƫ Heller's Notes on a Scandal.

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