The Good Doctor

Book Review for the Zimbabwean:



Title: The Good Doctor

Author: Damon Galgut

Publisher: Atlantic Books, London, UK

Year: 2003

ISBN 1-84354-202-1

Price: £ 7.99


One of the good things about being out of Zimbabwe is the good books one gets to read, from the public library, the second hand book shelves in the charity shops, book crossing and finally from book shops.


I knew nothing about this author before. This book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003. It’s not difficult to see why. 


At the centre of the story is 40 something Dr Frank Ellof, who is telling the story, and come with a lot of backward looking baggage from South Africa’s past; then Dr Laurence Waters, newly qualified, newly arrived on rural attachment, is forward looking, wants to make a difference. They share a room in the hospital. Around them is Dr Ruth Ngema, head of the hospital, who was only ‘treading water’ in this little hospital deep in the sticks in a former Bantustan, ‘till she could move closer to the centre’. Mr Tehogo is not a qualified nurse but has to do all the nursing jobs because the nurses have left and not been replaced. Together with other lesser characters and the surrounds they are caught in the decomposing matrix of old South Africa.


The language appears to stand back from the story, which is so real it has resonance with actual situations. That is misleading because the telling of this story is alive through its language. In one passage, Laurence and Frank had been hiking. Frank decides not to go any further, so the younger man leaves him behind in the forest. It is late in the afternoon and the shadows are getting darker.

Frank tells us: Now I felt watched. The trees were a dark cryptic presence all around me, the rocks bulged with hard inner life. It had been years since the world observed me like this; it made me a child again. I had a memory of the bottom of our garden and how huge and complex it was on the day that my mother had died.



Frank’s underlying theses is that there has been no change in South Africa.

Frank: ‘What do they say about me?’             

Laurence: ‘That you are not part of …of the new country.’

Frank: ‘The new country, where is it, this new country?’

Laurence: ‘All around you Frank. Everything you see. We’re starting again, building it all up from the ground.’

Frank: ‘Words, words and symbols.’

‘Symbols’ is Frank’s response to the enthusiasm and idealism of others to change the world they live in.


He also describes beautifully how he passes his ethical dilemmas onto Laurence, to show him that ‘Ideas are always better than reality, of course. But sooner or later the real world always wins.’ The end is surprising.


The idea that people do not really change their basic nature, which is selfishness, so things cannot really change, you just change one lot of people for another, is not a new one. You want what you want and you are out to get it, to hell with the politics of it. There are enough examples in the world of the former oppressed and brutalised people perpetrating the same on other people. Use whatever advantage you can get to get ahead, whether group advantage or individual advantage. This has been so starkly played out in Zimbabwe in the last few years, that it has shocked the world.


A class view of things would suggest that the intellectuals and business class lead nationalist politics. They mobilise the workers and peasants behind them under the banner of freedom, patriotism and self-determination. As soon as political power is achieved, they rob the government and use it to take bribes from local and international capital to become rich. Some re-distribution in line with the new balance of power takes place, but the old relationships remain essentially the same. At the same time the more resistance from the other ‘led’ classes for a return to the old rallying cries, the more brutal and blatant the ‘put down’. For this Alphonso Kerr coined the phrase ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’ following the French revolution.


The debate on whether things are changing or have changed in the new South Africa is hotting up. This book is adding to this. The landscape of the characters presented is rather bleak. However with my experience of Zimbabwe behind me, hope has kept the project going, as it were. ZANU has blamed the whites for the lack of change. Had the people changed? After the sharp economic collapse post 1997 began, people were feeling and expressing a bond across the racial, ethnic and economic divide as petrol queues, elections and other events were happening. Perhaps the first real tangible sign of change since the fact of liberation.


For the MDC, whose slogan is ‘change’ (chinja / guqula) and others, the same sense of euphoria may not greet them if and when they come to power, as when liberation first came.



Farai Madzimbamuto




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