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The Good Doctor
The Good Doctor
Damon Galgut
Grove Pr, 2003
224 pp., $23.00

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Tim Stafford

Fever Dream

A parable of the new South Africa.

When we meet Frank, a white South African doctor, apartheid has ended. Frank inhabits a dilapidated hospital in a forgotten former homeland—"homelands" being sham black African nations that the apartheid regime drew up to sustain its fiction of separate-but-equal racial development. Now those homelands, and the mock ideals behind them, are gone. In Frank's hospital, built on a grand scale to foster the illusion of significance, few patients come and little medical care is offered. The town and the region seem vacant and exhausted. So does Frank. He is used up, alienated from his family (his wife has left him for his best friend), and without noticeable hope or affection for his work or his country. He seems unprejudiced only because he does not like or trust a single soul on earth, black or white.

Then Laurence arrives, an idealistic young doctor just out of medical school. Laurence is "the good doctor," determined to help the poorest and most neglected of people. Almost immediately Laurence runs smack into the lethargy and indifference that have taken over the hospital like a poison gas. It dismays and unmans him, but he refuses to bow to the inevitable—at least, to what Frank considers the inevitable.

Frank tells Laurence that he has made a mistake in choosing the hospital. "But people get injured, people get sick," Laurence answers. "Don't they need help?" Frank's response is scornful:

"What do you think this place means to them? It's where the army came from. It's where their puppet dictator lived. They hate this place."
"You mean politics," he [Laurence] said. "But that's all past now. It doesn't matter any more."
"The past has only just happened. It's not past yet."
"I don't care about that. I'm a doctor."

Thus Laurence embodies idealism and hope, but in a brittle, blind form. He has no human touch, no real empathy. His ideals are all in his head.

Frank, for his part, has made a temporary peace with the dead present. "The past and the future are dangerous countries; ...

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