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Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize.
“Damon Galgut has written a lovely, lethal, disturbing novel.”
–The Guardian (U.K.)
“Exquisite.… It is a testament to Galgut’ s skill that this mostly quiet novel can leave such a lasting sense of urgency. And shame. That, after all, is what great fiction is meant to do.”
“Possesses the economy and pace of Hemingway and the lyrical grace of Graham Greene.…”
“A truly remarkable novel, steeped in contemporary history, yet at the same time transcending it. I was enthralled by its intensity and the immediacy of every small twist and turn of the story.”
“A tremendous brave book. The author never flinches, and makes his hero’s dark logic compelling and hair-rising. . . . Galgut writes like a man on a long fast night drive through bad places.… It’ s brilliant.”
“From the first page the reader is gripped by a rare twinning of convictions: that it is strange and new, and that the imaginative rendering is of the highest quality.… There are traces of J. M. Coetzee and Graham Greene but Damon Galgut is a true original.”
“If there is a posterity, The Good Doctor will be seen as one of the great literary triumphs of South Africa’s transition, a novel that is in every way the equal of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.… [Galgut is] a novelist of great and growing power.”
From the Hardcover edition.
He said, ‘Hello…? Is this the hospital?’
His voice was unexpectedly deep for somebody so tall and thin.
‘Come in,’ I said. ‘Put down your bag.’
He came in, but he didn’t put down the bag. He held it close while he looked around at the pink walls, the empty chairs, the dusty desk in the corner, the frail plants wilting in their pots. I could see that he thought there’d been some kind of mistake. I felt sorry for him.
‘I’m Frank Eloff,’ I said.
‘I’m Laurence Waters.’
He seemed amazed that we should be expecting him, though he’d been sending faxes for days already, announcing his arrival.
‘We’re sharing a room,’ I told him. ‘Let me take you over.’
The room was in a separate wing. We had to cross an open space of ground, close to the parking lot. When he came in he must have walked this way, but now he looked at the path through the long grass, the ragged trees overhead dropping their burden of leaves, as if he’d never seen them before.
We went down the long passage to the room. I’d lived and slept alone in here until today. Two beds, a cupboard, a small carpet, a print on one wall, a mirror, a green sofa, a low coffee table made of synthetic wood, a lamp. It was all basic standard issue. The few occupied rooms all looked the same, as in some featureless bleak hotel. The only trace of individuality was in the configuration of the furniture, but I’d never bothered to shift mine around till two days ago, when an extra bed had been brought in. I also hadn’t added anything. There was no personality in the ugly, austere furniture; against this neutral backdrop, even a piece of cloth would have been revealing.
‘You can take that bed,’ I said. ‘There’s space in the cupboard. The bathroom’s through that door.’
‘Oh. Yes. Okay.’ But he still didn’t put down his bag.
I’d only heard two weeks before that I would have to share a room. Dr Ngema had called me in. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t refuse. And in the days that followed I came around, in spite of myself, to the idea of sharing. It might not be so bad. We might get on well, it might be good to have company, my life here could be pleasantly different. So in a way I started looking forward with curiosity to this change. And before he arrived I did a few things to make him welcome. I put the new bed under the window and made it up with fresh linen. I cleared a few shelves in the cupboard. I swept and cleaned, which is something I don’t do very often.
But room was ugly and bare. And Laurence Waters didn’t look to me like the person I’d pictured in my head. I now that he was standing here I could see, through his eyes, how invisible that effort was. The don’t know what I’d imagined, but it wasn’t this bland, biscuit-coloured young man, almost a boy still, who was at last putting his suitcase down.
He took his glasses off and rubbed them on his sleeve. He put them on again and said wearily, ‘I don’t understand.’
‘This whole place.’
‘Not just the hospital. I mean...’ He waved a hand to indicate the world out there. He meant the town outside the hospital walls.
‘You asked to come here.’
‘But I didn’t know that it would be like this. Why?’ he said with sudden intensity. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘We can talk about it later. But I’m on duty now, I have to go back to the office.’
‘I must see Dr Ngema,’ he said abruptly. ‘She’s expecting me.’
‘Don’t worry about that now. You can do it in the morning. No hurry.’
‘What should I do now?’
‘Whatever you like. Unpack, settle in. Or come and sit with me. I’ll be finished in a couple of hours.’
I left him alone and went back. He was shocked and depressed. I understood that; I’d felt it myself when I first arrived. You came expecting one thing and were met by something else completely.
You came expecting a busy modern hospital – rural maybe, and small, but full of activity – in a town where things were happening. This was the capital of what used to be one of the homelands, so whatever the morality of the politics that gave rise to it, you expected a place full of administration and movement, people coming and going. And when you’d turned off the main route to the border and were coming in on the one minor road that led here, it might still look – when you saw the place from a distance – like what you’d expected. There was the main street, leading to the centre where the fountain and the statue stood, the shop-fronts and pavements and streetlights, and all the buildings beyond. It looked neat and calibrated and exact. Not a bad place to be.
And then you arrived and you saw. Maybe the first clue was a disturbing detail; a crack that ran through an otherwise pristine wall, or a set of broken windows in an office you passed. Or the fact that the fountain was dry and full of old sand at the bottom. And you slowed down, looking around you with vague anxiety, and suddenly it all came into clear focus. The weeds in the joints of the pavements and bricks, the grass growing at places in the street, the fused lamps and the empty shops behind their blank glass fronts and the mildew and damp and blistered paint and the marks of rain on every surface and the slow tumbling down of solid structures, sometimes grain by grain, sometimes in pieces. And you were not sure any more of where you were.
And there were no people. That was the last thing you noticed, though you realized then that it was the first thing to give you that uneasy hollow feeling: the place was deserted. There was, yes, a car cruising slowly down a back road, an official uniform or two ambling along a pavement, and maybe a figure slouching on a footpath through an overgrown plot of land, but mostly the space was empty. Uninhabited. No human chaos, no movement.
A ghost town.
‘It’s like something terrible happened here,’ Laurence said. ‘That’ s how it feels.’
‘Ja, but the opposite is true. Nothing has ever happened here. Nothing ever will. That’s the problem.’
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted February 18, 2005
Posted December 2, 2004