Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Which One is the Good Doctor?

It turns out that in the constellation of writers who chronicle post-apartheid South Africa there are more than two stars. We are all familiar with Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee. I recently discovered a third: Damon Galgut. Galgut was born in South Africa in 1963.

Some background: Apartheid was enforced by the government of South Africa between 1948 and 1990. During that period certain impoverished and underdeveloped areas of land were set aside by the government for the "self-determination" of its various black "nations". Galgut's novel The Good Doctor is set in a failing hospital in such a remote rural homeland post-apartheid. It is the story of two white doctors who are at opposite ends of the spectrum on almost every dimension. Laurence, newly arrived at the hospital, is young, idealistic, just out of medical school and has chosen this for his one year of mandatory community service. Frank is older, cynical, has been at the hospital for seven years, and came there in the aftermath of his wife's affair with his partner in his medical practice. The circumstances at the hospital are such that the two men have to share their living quarters. The story of their time together is told by Frank.

The hospital's finances, its physical plant, the town itself: all are in desperate and depressing shape. Laurence's efforts at improvement are touching but doomed; not so for his optimism and sense of duty which are undiminished. Both men become involved with the same local woman with disasterous results for all. Players on both sides of the previous apartheid-era conflict re-appear bringing back with them some of the previous tensions.

Many novels present their characters with moral dilemmas and explore their choices. But somehow the choices in this particular period of history in South Africa seem to have an added dimension and poignancy. Perhaps it is because we here in the US are so geographically and culturally removed. We are fortunate to have this talented writer to help us toward a better understanding of the physical and moral landscape of his native country.

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