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.
As the plot unfolds in a series of minor lies, missteps and naïve presumptions, what emerges is that neither Laurence nor Frank is equipped to tackle this country that is supposedly theirs; and that in spite of their vast differences–the differences between one generation and the next, in a nation reconceived–they will always have more in common with each other than with anyone else around them. While Laurence insists obsessively on his friendship with Frank, the latter is painfully equivocal; but he is also unable to deny their bond. Laurence’s girlfriend even suggests that the two men are in love with each other, but reality is perhaps simpler than that: In crudest terms, their connection is summed up from the outset in the unspoken rationale behind their shared living quarters: “It wasn’t just that Laurence Waters and I were doctors; it was that we were two white men, and we belonged in a room together.”
Their common struggle–the endeavor to reconstruct an identity, and in this case a white identity, in the postapartheid nation–is currently the subject of many of South Africa’s white writers (and surely of black writers such as Zakes Mda, although their work is less widely known in this country). The Good Doctor has been compared to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and not without reason, as both novels inhabit the lives of less than wholly sympathetic protagonists who, far from the cities that raised them, attempt and fail to comprehend their country’s new racial, social and indeed cultural configurations. Variations on this theme, albeit more oblique, are to be found also in Nadine Gordimer’s recent collection, Loot and Other Stories. But while Coetzee’s David Lurie is clearly of an “old” South African generation, as are Gordimer’s characters, and while Lurie’s daughter Lucy is, like Laurence Waters, of a “new” generation, Frank Eloff falls somewhere in between: still relatively young, and yet formed, indeed tainted, by the evils of the old administration. Herein lies the particular power of Galgut’s novel.
If Laurence Waters embodies the limpidity of his surname, Frank bears the bullish straightforwardness of his given name: He does not pretend to be noble or courageous, but he does–we are to assume, from his relentlessly unflattering self-portrait–attempt to tell the truth. While Laurence puts forth a false family history and builds a shrine to an apparently false relationship with a woman who is herself–an African-American with an adopted African name–oddly false, Frank unflinchingly reveals the depths of his own cowardice, the limitations of character that, in some clear but indirect way, have condemned him to the forgotten hospital. Frank’s moment of truth occurred when he was a medic in the army, under a brutal commander named Moller: Called upon to examine a prisoner suffering an asthma attack, Frank, in his passivity, colluded in the man’s continued torture. Of such weak stuff, he seems to insist, is he forever made. As he tells Laurence, “You can’t change anything. Because you can’t change the way you are.”
The climax of the novel revolves around the hospital’s nurse, Tehogo, a man whose family was butchered during local unrest, and who may be affiliated with the Brigadier, the region’s ousted former leader and a shadowy presence still. Frank discovers that Tehogo has been looting the hospital of furniture and supplies, and shares his secret with Laurence. Meanwhile, Frank’s nemesis Moller resurfaces, a colonel now, to oversee unnamed military activities in the area.
Predictably, Frank and Laurence react in very different ways to the situation. As Frank observes, “So simple: one issue, all the complexities and contradictions reduced to a simple moral needle-point. And that was Laurence. Something was either good or bad, clearly and definingly so, and you acted accordingly.” Laurence apparently deems stealing wrong, and feels he must tell Dr. Ngema about Tehogo, initially claiming, untruthfully, that it is his own discovery. Ultimately, however, he is willing to accept Dr. Ngema’s support for further clinics in return for letting Tehogo off the hook.
The novel, however, is told through Frank’s eyes, and it is his worldview that takes precedence. In this way, a sequence of superficially unrelated events amounts to a far-reaching and terrifying conspiracy. As he says, “All the elements of a foreign world were coming together for me, assembling to make a picture of the past.” Tehogo is no simple thief; he is an envoy of the Brigadier, whose dark hand reaches, too, to threaten Frank’s unfortunate lover, Maria. Moller is not merely in town to deter small-time smugglers but to crush the Brigadier’s invisible insurgent band. The battles of an earlier South Africa are to be resumed and fought upon this forgotten and murky ground.
Frank’s landscape becomes increasingly the terrain of nightmare, punctuated by abandoned encampments, neglected settlements, unexplained disappearances and reappearances and, through it all, the breathless, stumbling, baffled figure of Frank himself. This is ultimately a story about Frank rather than about Laurence; and of course, Laurence as we see him is only ever Frank’s construct, perhaps as distorted as are his creations of Maria, of Moller, of the infamous Brigadier. (In this, Frank recalls Ford Madox Ford’s narrator in The Good Soldier, whose title The Good Doctor also echoes.) And of course it is Frank–the cynic, the conspiracy theorist, the coward–who is also the survivor. The facts leading to Laurence’s end appear to be random; but in Frank’s telling, Laurence is doomed from the instant of his arrival: The novel opens with the sentence “The first time I saw him I thought, he won’t last.” While Frank’s misconception of the world may endorse, even condone, evil, it is apparently preferable to Laurence’s, which leads nowhere.
Galgut’s portrait of the new South Africa is not flattering. Dr. Ngema is a hypocritical bureaucrat, a time-server. Colonel Moller remains as he ever was, a brute licensed by his uniform. Frank’s family and former life in Johannesburg continue, complacent, unchanged by time. And while Frank and Laurence enact the struggles confronting white South Africans, neither presents a viable moral alternative. If Coetzee’s David Lurie comes, in Disgrace, to an agonized and devout renunciation that seems, almost, a negative state of grace, Galgut’s Frank Eloff arrives merely at a place of greater and more cynical resignation: “I am content,” he notes, as he takes over Dr. Ngema’s room at last. “Maybe this is only the false peace of resignation. But I feel, somehow, that I have come into my own.”
Galgut’s fine, unsettling novel implies that if this meaningless bureaucratic triumph constitutes Frank’s success, then the lessons of South Africa’s dark history have never been, and perhaps never can be, digested. Frank more accurately assesses the situation when he sees Maria for the last time, and concedes, “I was only here to learn again how much I didn’t know and would never understand.”