1 March, 2004Issue 3.2AfricaFictionLiterature

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Everything is politics, but is everything allegory?

Andrew van der Vlies

Damon Galgut
The Good Doctor
Atlantic Books, 2003
215 pages

Damon Galgut’s latest novel, The Good Doctor , was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker prize last September. Robert McCrum tipped it for the prize in the Observer , and bookmakers William Hill had it at third favourite (9/2 odds), but it was always the competitor least likely to benefit from the accompanying publicity. It was weeks before Borders and Blackwells stocked more than a handful of copies, let alone displayed it with its five rivals.1 This may have had more to do with Galgut’s publishers than the bookstores, but it also reflects the novel’s marginal subject matter and its author’s marginal status: The Good Doctor is set in a barely functioning hospital in a remote former homeland in northern South Africa, and Damon Galgut is a resident South African writer who isn’t a Nobel laureate, like Gordimer or Coetzee (who now lives in Australia).

At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to the hospital’s dysfunctional staff. Frank Eloff is a morose, thirty-something, white South African doctor who has waited years to succeed the director of the hospital, Ruth Ngema, a returned exile whose promised promotion to a government position is repeatedly postponed.2 The hospital is unable to treat patients with any serious ailment, and the rest of its staff ‘a quarrelsome Cuban couple, two kitchen workers and a male nurse who appears to be systematically stripping and selling the hospital’s meagre fixtures’ languish in a state of provisionally arrested decline, with political tensions between black and white precariously balanced.

Enter Laurence Waters, a naively enthusiastic and newly qualified doctor who has come to the hospital to serve his year of compulsory medical community service. His surname, not accidentally, announces him as bringing new life to the place, as he sets about initiating new outreach programmes and unsettling Frank’s narcissistic emotional stagnation. Despite lack of encouragement from the cautious Ngema, Laurence achieves small successes. But this is not to be a story of development and progress. A military detachment arrives in the nearest town, the decaying planned capital of the former homeland, to police the permeable border close by. There have long been rumours that the homeland’s shadowy leader, the Brigadier, is engaged in illegal cross-border trafficking and is plotting insurgency. The nurse departs after Laurence accuses him of theft, and the denouement involves a raid on the hospital which leaves Laurence missing, presumed dead. At the novel’s end, Frank is about to assume control of the even more depleted hospital, Ngema’s appointment finally, it seems, having materialised.

This précis does not do justice to what is a compellingly readable novel. Sub-plots involve Frank’s failed and loveless relationships and encounters (with a local black woman, with his estranged wife who is about to emigrate with his erstwhile best friend, and with Laurence’s supposed girlfriend, an African-American aid worker), tension with his father (once a poster-boy of the apartheid government), and his memories of having to make an impossible decision while serving in the army during the Angolan war. With echoes of Camus, Coetzee (especially Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace ), and early, untranslated Etienne van Heerden (Om te Awol), The Good Doctor is chilling in its portrayal of political tensions and existential torpor, and unnervingly acute in its observations on the failures of the new dispensation. The unreliability of Frank’s narration is handled masterfully: he is unable to interpret events, and his tautologies and clichés perfectly convey the role that language plays in his lack of comprehension.

But there are some frustrating elements in this deliberately frustrated narrative. The clearly homoerotic relationship between Frank and Laurence is awkwardly marginalised. They share a room ‘somewhat improbably, there being countless empty rooms in the hospital’ and Frank feels both attracted to and threatened by Laurence in equal measure. Laurence’s girlfriend tells Frank: ‘The two of you are obviously in love with each other’. Frank’s response is not to deny it, but to be left ‘speechless’. Is Frank, a man brutalised by the ‘old’ South Africa, unable to verbalise unsettling feelings, or is The Good Doctor an awkward attempt on Galgut’s part to write a ‘straight’ novel? His earlier work, particularly The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991), figured homosexuality as a reaction against what Galgut regarded in the 1980s as the hyper-masculine mythology of apartheid.3 Like earlier protagonists, Frank rejects his father ‘but this father is less the heterosexual patriarch disowned in previous novels, and more a symbol of the comfortable, complicit, white lifestyle from which Frank has attempted to exile himself. Galgut seems unsure of how to wring post-apartheid significance from the residual (but uncomfortably suppressed) gay sub-plot, but he also seems reluctant to relinquish it. It is a pity he does not address it more directly.

The novel’s metafictional musings about a deeper, vaguely delineated allegory also threaten to undermine its acuity. Frank’s narrative is peppered with exclamations about the frustrating elusiveness of its own significance: ‘If this was an allegory […] but it was only real life’; ‘like a cryptic symbol’; ‘I had found my grand defining moment, but what it revealed I didn’t want to know’. Obvious parallels only deepen the obscurity: Laurence tries to tame the overgrown grounds of the hospital, for example, and the Brigadier returns to his vacant mansion at night to mow the lawns. Are we to infer a significant connection, or is the suggestion of an indeterminate link an aspect of Frank’s deepening confusion?

The graphic on the cover of this beautifully produced book is supposed to be an x-ray of Laurence Waters. But, of course, the personal being political, the x-ray is also the country laid bare. In his infrequent displays of insight, Frank tells Laurence: ‘The past has only just happened. It’s not past yet’; ‘Everything is politics’. By the end of the novel the political has become intensely personal, although no one knows quite who holds the advantage. It is as a vignette of the dysfunctions of a post-apartheid society still unsure of its future that the novel succeeds. Galgut’s political barometer is sensitive, and worthy of attention, even if his allegories are sometimes unclear. Perhaps that is part of the point.

Andrew van der Vlies is about to complete a DPhil at Lincoln College, Oxford, on the publication and reception histories of South African literatures in Britain. He has an MA from Rhodes University in South Africa, and an MPhil from Oxford. He has published essays on Olive Schreiner, Alan Paton, Alex La Guma, and Roy Campbell, and teaches twentieth-century British, American and Colonial/Postcolonial literatures, and Theory.


  1. Robert McCrum, ‘Professor Carey has come up trumps’, The Observer , 21 September 2003; see also http://books.guardian.co.uk/bookerprize2003/0,13819,1019602,00.html
  2. One wonders if Galgut intends a reference to Mbongeni Ngema, whose play Sarafina! was at the centre of a row about the squandering of AIDS funding several years ago.
  3. See Michiel Heyns, ‘A man’s world: white South African gay writing and the State of Emergency’, in Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995 , ed. Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 108-22, p.113.