Frank Eloff and Laurence Waters, two doctors of different generations, different personalities, and opposing perspectives, are thrown together – sharing a room – when the younger, Laurence, joins the small medical team in a dilapidated hospital in a remote part of South Africa. Damon Galgut, award winning South African author, builds his intense and thought provoking novel around these two opposing characters, their different approaches to the challenges facing the hospital and its community, and, fundamentally, their contrasting beliefs of what is “good”, moral and ethical. But, the author also goes beyond the personal level into a broader portrait of South Africa and its contradictions. The scenario, centred on a hospital in a remote part of the country and caught between past and present, is like an emblematic representation of a South African society that continues to struggles to build the new era while being incessantly drawn back into the lingering problems of the past.
Situated in the former capital of one of the apartheid-era “bantustans” (Homelands), the hospital appears to have since been forgotten by those in central government: everything is lacking including the patients. Villagers may not even realize that the hospital exists… Frank is going through a midlife crisis of sorts, “self-exiled”, and resigned. And he feels stuck, “living in no man’s land”. And when the large shadows of a violent past come back to haunt him, Frank has to revisit his own behaviour, then and now. Laurence, by contrast, is the idealistic young medical volunteer, who believes he can change the world and pull the others along. His naiveté can be endearing but also dangerous when combined with his rigid moral convictions.
Galgut introduces two black women as counterparts to his central characters – apart from the boss, Dr. Ngema, who, while preaching “innovation and change”, keeps busy with the opposites. Zalena and Maria represent two completely different worlds and the relationships that Laurence and Frank form speak volumes about race and intimacy. On the surface the two central characters may appear two sides of the same coin, but as we follow Frank’s narrative and self-analysis, we see a much more complex personality whose background has formed his cynicism and behaviour. For him “past and the future are dangerous countries”. For Laurence the future of the country is here and he believes in it completely.
In “The Good Doctor” Damon Galgut has written a powerful novel, a psychological study of a group of individuals that is representative aspects of a society in flux. Written with elegance and expressive depth, it puts the author for me into the league of the likes of J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.