Taut, sparingly written, The Good Doctor is a melancholic parable as a young South African doctor comes to terms with his position at the almost forgotten hospital clinic in the virtually deserted capital of what was once, during apartheid times, a Bantu homeland. Now, no-one cares about what was once a so-called nation-state. Passion (for or against such travesties of black home rule) has been replaced by indifference.
Frank Eloff is a young man escaping his failed marriage after his wife left him for his best friend. But that was many years ago with a promised promotion that never materialised. His boss, Dr Ngema, has never moved on and, in spite of her constant innovation and change mantra, little has changed with the exception of the slow denudement of the clinic itself. Few patients, few medical staff, a closed-off wing of the building, it’s all something of an irrelevance. So the arrival of recent graduate Laurence Waters, keen, enthusisatic and blind to limitations, is wholly unexpected, particularly as, in spite of the emptiness of the clinic, Dr Ngema decides he is to share rooms with Frank.
The two men are essentially different sides of the same coin. Cynical and disenchanted Frank can only watch and judge as an enthusiastic Laurence looks to take the hospital to the people – schemes involving the medics travelling into the bush to remote African villages. He’s a man on a mission, oblivious to the indifference around him – so much so he alienates himself from others, particularly Frank (but Waters being Waters, he’s even oblivious to this). A visit from African-American girlfriend, Zanele, adds to the uncertainties of the new doctor – she shares his political idealism but there’s a noticeable lack of intimacy between the two.
As Frank struggles, his old habits in the local township take on new meanings – particularly with the arrival of a regiment of men from the South African army. Incursions across the nearby border means tighter security. Frank recognises the major in charge from his days as a conscript – a brutal and sadistic Afrikaner responsible for the torture of numerous black prisoners and who is now employed by the new government. The sinister old dictator, now much diminished, who once ran the homeland also reappears having assumed to be dead. He’s to be found squatting in the old ruin of the presidential palace, tending to the gardens.
Incorporate a Cuban couple working in the hospital along with the unqualified Tehogo as a male nurse (and who is likely to be responsible for the diminishing equipment in the hospital) and Galgut offers us a snapshot of South Africa past and present – or at least a country in transition from the past into the present. Cape Town, Johannesburg are distant edifices as far as The Good Doctor is concerned – bureaucracies where decisions are made that impact the clinic without any connection to place.
The past and the future are dangerous countries; I had been living in no man’s land, between their borders, for the last seven years.
Like the wreck of the homeland capital, Galgut explores the promise of the new from the ruins of the old. But with the ghosts of the past partially incorporated into the present, with a level of apathy and indifference towards progress when family and tradition are the norm, what does it all mean? As the ex-president confides to Frank – but who will cut the grass?
The Good Doctor is a thoughtful, engaging slow burn of a novel shortlisted for 2003 Booker Prize (but lost out to DBC Pierre and Vernon God Little).