Although the epigraph of Damon Galgut’s novel is taken from Chekhov, it is the ghost of Graham Greene that hovers most palpably over The Good Doctor, and even in the cadence of its title. In particular, The Quiet American, Greene’s depiction of the cynical British journalist Fowler’s entanglement with Pyle, the misguided American idealist, in 1950s Vietnam, echoes through Galgut’s postcolonial narrative. The Good Doctor is the first-person account by Frank Eloff Jr., a doctor at a remote and forgotten hospital in a former South African homeland, of his peculiar friendship with one Laurence Waters. This latter, a “bland, biscuit-coloured young man, almost a boy still,” is the novel’s namesake, whose naïve passion and idealism stand in notable, and oft-noted, contrast to Frank’s embittered resignation. Of course, the tale’s irony lies in the fact that it is Frank as much as Laurence whose projections and miscalculations bring tragedy to their lives. While Laurence may seem blithely, ahistorically optimistic, Frank sees the world through the bleak prism of the “old” South Africa; and both perspectives, the novel would seem to suggest, are pernicious.
Galgut, perhaps again mindful of Greene, writes taut and compelling prose. The novel is slight–barely more than 200 pages–and yet feels freighted with mystery and moment, replete with significant incident. Whether in fact the apparently significant is necessarily meaningful is one of Frank’s preoccupations: At one point, he dismisses the new South Africa as mere “words and symbols” with little faith in either; and yet the matter of the narrative, Frank’s very telling, would suggest otherwise. From the outset, the hospital is described as “a strange twilight place, halfway between nothing and somewhere,” where “for the few of us still remaining, life went on between twin poles of banality and violence.” The rural landscape, initially beloved by Frank for “the fertility and fecundity of it, the life it gave off,” has come to seem “oppressive and somehow threatening. Nothing could be maintained here, nothing stayed the same…. You could not clear a place in the forest and expect to find it again two weeks later.” In short, the very buildings and foliage have transformed into symbols: Like language, they speak. But what they say depends, radically, upon the listener.
Frank Eloff, we learn, has been “six or seven” years in this isolated hospital, a (curiously vague) duration that corresponds, very nearly, to that of the “new” nation itself. Abandoned by his wife, Karen, who took up with his medical partner, best friend and former army buddy, Mike, Frank fled Johannesburg for the hinterland, a willful escape to “a ghost town” on the tenuous and ever-unfulfilled promise that the hospital’s director, Dr. Ruth Ngema, would move on and pass her position to him. Unlike the idealistic Laurence, who has fashioned a moving personal narrative–which proves, fascinatingly, to be fictional–in order to justify his choice of profession, Frank is a doctor by default, the son of a prominent celebrity medic whose early bravery in treating victims of a mining accident led to hosting a medical quiz show on television. (This is the one moment where the novel strains credulity: Who can conceive of a successful medical quiz show?) “I imagined not only that I wanted to be like him, but that it would be easy to do,” Frank observes. “But of course it hadn’t happened like that…” In abandoning his failed marriage and his urban practice, Frank has also left behind the comforts of the traditional prosperous white South African life: a world of luxuries, maid service and powerful connections. Karen carps, at one point, “Don’t you think it’s time to come back to civilization?… Do you think we feel sorry for you? Mike says you like to suffer to get attention.”
In this, Frank resembles his younger counterpart more than he might like to admit. Laurence has arrived for a year of community service; it is a mandatory undertaking, but he has actively sought this godforsaken commission. “All the others, the students, I mean, they just wanted the most comfortable posting,” Laurence explains to Frank. “I thought: let me be different to them. Let me find the tiniest place, the furthest away from anything. Let me make it hard on myself.” And further–most frighteningly to Frank: “I want to do work that means something.” Their motives may diverge, but both men are engaged in a form of purgatorial self-exile, one in service to the future, the other, less admissibly, to the past.