‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut

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 Passion (for or against such travesties of black home rule) has been replaced by indifference.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).

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut

A powerful, challenging family drama, the 2021 Booker Prize winning The Promise is a visceral menace of a novel as the Swarts, an Afrikaans family, is torn apart by death and an unmet promise.

On her deathbed, dying young from cancer, Rachel Swart elicits a promise from husband, Manie. The small house on their Pretorian farm was to be gifted to long-time domestic servant, Salome. He distractedly agrees. Unbeknown to either of them, youngest daughter Amor overhears the promise. In a country emerging from apartheid and minority rule, what evolves is a family saga spread over 40 years mirroring a country full of resentment, anger, fear – and hope. As the family unit disintegrates, so the promise remains unfulfilled as Manie choses to ignore/deny his wife’s wishes.

Seen as an unsentimental allegory to post-apartheid South Africa, The Promise looks to the moral question of the support for majority black rule and expected renewal. It’s slow in coming.

Disparate, the Swarts are united by funerals – but not grief – after the death of Rachel. Having refound her Jewish faith on her deathbed having previously married into a family of Dutch Reform Calvinists, her death and funeral arrangements are not easily handled by the fundamentalist Swarts. It’s an uncomfortable and challenging opening of Galgut’s novel as opposing family members clash and compromise, leaving seething anger and disappointment. It sets the scene for the disatisfaction and unfulfillment that is to pervade the underlying narrative of the novel.

The three teenage children, Anton (he arrives late to the funeral due to military service), Astrid and Amor (part-time narrator and moral compass of the novel) are disconnected even at this early stage and, by the second of four parts within The Promise, have all flown the coup.

Menace continually bubbles under the surface as the dwindling family meet approximately every decade for a family funeral. Each time it is more and more difficult for Amor to be contacted as she distances herself physically and emotionally from the farm and her siblings (at one point she has left to live in London leaving no contact details). It is she who constantly raises the issue of the promise. But her requests fall on fallow ground as a bitter Anton, once the golden boy, lives in the shadow of unfulfilled potential (and the Church built on part of the farm as bequeathed by the father) and Astrid comes to terms with loss of youth, looks and two failed marriages.

The Promise is a dramatic tale and provides an engrossing insight into a time and place of great flux. It is a ‘semi-detached’ telling, an odd hybrid as Amor is – and then isn’t – the narrator. The result is an ebb and flow of emotional involvement but which nevertheless draws the reader in.

‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee

JMCoetzee_DisgraceA compelling, multilayered exploration of the dilemma of South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, Disgrace is a beautifully written story of power, sexuality and redemption.

Twice-divorced David Lurie, a middle-aged lecturer of Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, has an ill-advised short-lived affair with one of his students. When a complaint is filed against him, an arrogant and dismissive Lurie refuses to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his behaviour and, as a result, is forced to resign. Retreating to his daughter’s isolated smallholding in the Eastern Cape, Lurie is forced to confront his values, opinions and position as a privileged white male in the new South Africa.

More anti-hero than Byronic, Lurie’s complex emotions to his situation – a man seeming without purpose – is heightened by the attack on his daughter Lucie and himself by three young black men in their own home. Lucie refuses to file a complaint, much to the distress of her father.

Roles and position have changed, inevitable but, in some instances, sudden. Lurie is no longer the man he once was – no job, little influence on his daughter, ageing. But there is hope for him – the sexual relationship with Bev, a woman he finds physically unattractive, is an act that is a step towards “annihilating his sexual vanity and his sense of superiority.”

A lyrical, riveting metaphor, Disgrace was the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize – and possibly one of the best books I have ever read.


‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor

Bitter_Fruit_(Dangor_novel)Set in 1998 South Africa, just a few years after the end of apartheid and majority rule came into force, Bitter Fruit is a dense, harrowing drama of a disintegrating middle-class ‘coloured’ family. A chance sighting of former security policeman, Lieutenant Du Boise, stirs bitter memories of 20 years prior that have a devastating impact on the Ali family.

A cynical, embittered Silas Ali, approaching 50, a former ANC activist, now liaises between the Minister of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife, Lydia, ten years younger, is a nurse who, during the course of the novel, establishes her independence by becoming a significant player in the research of HIV transmission. Their highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful but increasingly troubled son, Mikey/Michael, loses his way, drops out of university and becomes involved with Muslim activists.

The marriage between Silas and Lydia is increasingly built on false premise – and the sighting of Du Boise brings it to a head: Lydia’s violent rape at the hands of the security forces, Silas’ inability to acknowledge or address events of that night. But there’s more, so much more, all of which goes unsaid and it is this bitter fruit that becomes so unbearable, open wounds so deep that the two have been in a state of limbo for 20 years.

Rape, incest, murder, alcoholism, divorce – the fruits of apartheid – past and present all feature in Bitter Fruit.

Through a series of incredibly well-drawn characters (the Ali family, Lydia’s extended family, friends and colleagues), we are provided with a powerful insight into the new South Africa and the “grey, shadowy morality” of an ANC government “bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise”. And the political, cultural and religious conflicts that inevitably impact.

Yet it is the evolving family drama that remains centre stage throughout Bitter Fruit in spite of the political context – and it is the stronger for it. Mikey/Michael is a child of the new South Africa and he reflects on the failings of his parents’ generation. Silas has to come to terms with the new order – a place where elevated involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle has been replaced by a sense of ordinariness. And Lydia must face her past in order to move forward.

But in the same way family friend Julian accepts his wife Val leaving him and embraces his homosexuality (no bitter fruit there), the Alis need to look to change as Mandela looks to hand over the responsibility of power – in with the new, out with the old. Silas is soon likely to be out of a job – as are his colleagues Kate and Alec. Mikey/Michael leaves behind the sexual conquests of older, white women and looks to finding a personal resolution at the Griffith Street Mosque and the Sufis.

Bitter Fruit is a challenging read. But it is also an incredibly rewarding one. Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink etc have provided the voices of white South African dissension, but Dangor’s novel helps provide a different perspective. The characters in Bitter Fruit ensure no one singular voice is presented, that a multifaceted account is provided, reflecting a modern day South Africa.

And, growing up in one of the ‘coloured’ townships of Johannesburg, witnessing first hand the violence, despair and injustice of an apartheid state before rising, via ANC activism, to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor’s voice can be assumed to be genuine and authentic.

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize but lost out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

in-a-strange-roomSince starting on my personal determination to read all winning and shortlisted books of both the Man Booker and Miles Franklin awards, new names (to me) are constantly popping up. South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut is just such a writer.

In a Strange Room is Galgut’s seventh book and was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize – yet he is no stranger to awards. His earlier The Good Doctor (2003) also found itself on the Booker shortlist and picked up the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa).

A relatively short novel (around 180 pages), In a Strange Room is a startlingly beautiful yet melancholic book, a haunting evocation of place and time. Divided into three journeys, there is a restlessness and sense of placelessness that pervades as the protagonist, Damon, leaves South Africa to journey through Greece, Lesotho, India. He seemingly belongs nowhere, living temporarily in Cape Town or Pretoria when ‘home’ yet constantly on the move when away from his country of birth – “never going towards something, but always away, away.”

Homoerotic undertones underscore the first two of Damon’s journeys – firstly with the beautiful German, Rainer, and later with the Swiss youth, Jerome. But the relationships are never consummated in spite of reciprocal intimations, as “one is too scared and the other too proud.” Yet the attraction remains, driving Damon, in the case of Jerome, to join him and his travelling companions across Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya) and, later, to travel to Switzerland itself.

All three journeys end, in their own way, in tragedy, with the third and final story, The Guardian, harrowing for Damon as he cares for the psychotic Anna whilst dealing with life-sapping Indian bureaucracy. It’s claustrophobic and insular (unlike the previous journeys and their distant horizons) with the internal landscapes of doubt, failure and self-worth explored in elegant, minimalist language.

Part travelogue, part memoire (based, apparently, on true events), part novel, In a Strange Room is something of a hybrid. Written mainly in the third person but occasionally switching to first person singular adds to the unsettling otherness and ambiguity of the book. Such a technique also enhances the validity of observation, providing an objective perspective on events as well as opinions.

Only at the end do we get a sense of any permanence for Damon, although experience has shown that this may be temporary.

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there … In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.