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I showed Laurence the absurd dome of the parliament building, nailed shut and disused. I showed him the library, which had never been stocked with books. The school, which had never taught a lesson. The blocks of flats, government housing for all the workers who were going to come and run the offices and services that had been planned – and some workers did come for a while. But there was no work. And then the trouble started, and in the end they trickled away again, to the cities or back where they’d come from, except the few who could still be spotted here and there, lost in their own uniforms and all this useless space.

When Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, it became a massive media event, much like the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which I watched one Sunday morning glued to the television screen at ten years of age. At any rate the liberal West could comfort itself with the knowledge that the widespread criticism of de Klerk’s latterday Apartheid regime had succeeded and now indigenous South Africans would enjoy a long-denied egalitarian society.

Of course that was nonsense. The widespread inequality of before continued. In fact many of South Africa’s economic were tied up in offshore holdings, allowing the same corporations who had profited from Apartheid to continue to do so. Naomi Klein dedicated a chapter in The Shock Doctrine discussing what happened during the ‘handover’.

The Good Doctor brought much of this to mind for me, as Galgut’s writing identifies how much of the divide between the different South African communities remains, how ideology fails in the face of aging enmities and hopelessness.

Frank was posted to a rural hospital literally in the middle of nowhere – a non-place in the South African countryside, created by bureaucratic fiat – seven years ago. He was promised the role of hospital administrator, a new beginning following a bitter divorce and the collapse of his medical practice. Instead the incumbent Dr. Ngema never achieved her own transfer and remained in her office, forcing Frank into a submissive position within the hospital. Understaffed and isolated, he finds an unusual source of comfort in his life in this border territory. Nothing changes there and he, in turn, is not forced to change.

Then Laurence Water arrives. Young and full of enthusiastic ideas about helping countryside communities be educated in health issues, he is given a berth in Frank’s room. Forced to spend his days and nights in the younger man’s presence, Frank quickly develops an intense resentment of him – yet at the same time feels envious of his desire to help. After all, much of his despondency is tied up with how Dr. Ngema herself often talks about change and innovation, but refuses to leave; and how the hospital’s staff are only marking time before the government finally shuts them down.

In addition, Frank is carrying a number of secrets, that in his innocence Laurence manages to stir up. His past with the military for example, which still haunts him, as well as a long-running affair with a local woman who tells him her name is Maria. Through his arrival and the increasing animosity between the two men, Frank is forced to confront his past and whether he, like old South Africa, is capable of change.

Damon Galgut‘s writing is so richly descriptive – the hospital’s state of disarray is so shocking to Laurence upon his arrival that he is left speechless – that the metaphorical content of the book is at first obscured. Still this is a profoundly moving account of how the divisions within South African society remain.

Frank’s inability to change is well captured. His disaffected view of the hospital is as much a product of his frustration with Dr. Ngema’s regime as it is a product of his own refusal to step into the breach to change things. Laurence presence is an insult to his own carefully cultivated impotence. What’s more Frank is closely identified with the ‘old South Africa’. Laurence is the future, threatening to change everything. His desire to educate the local people in HIV prevention, and the apathy of the other doctors, reflects the West’s widespread lack of interest in the epidemic throughout Africa.

Strongly developed and closely observed, this is a fantastic novel.

A year ago I reviewed Alasdair Gray‘s Lanark on my former blog. Instead of insisting on the post-modern content of that novel, or for that manner the religious themes, with references to Gnosticism and the inherent conservatism of the church as an institution – I compared the book to a comic by Grant Morrison named Animal Man.

Perhaps some might find that offensive? Personally the medium of a story has no categorical importance – it’s the content that interests me and I have no problem with raising this piece of popculture up on the same critical pedestal as Lanark.

Of course, and some of you may have realized, there was a small problem in my making the comparison – I had not actually read Animal Man. The page illustrated above was my sole reference. So to amend that little hiccup, I’m reviewing the final collection of Morrison’s run on the title today.

Animal Man is a minor superhero named Buddy Baker, who has been operating for just under a year. He has a wife, Ellen, and two children, Maxine and Cliff. An accident involving an alien spaceship has granted him the ability to borrow traits from animals, hence his superhero moniker. Unlike most other superhumans, Buddy’s heroics are more politically sensitive, such as environmental activism, agitating against animal testing and fighting against Apartheid in South Africa.

However, Buddy’s family has been under surveillance from a mysterious figure, seemingly able to appear at will. Unable to protect his wife and children from the ‘weirdness’, in his life, the everyman superhero has also recently undergone unusual experiences, hinting at some outside force manipulating his life for the purpose of entertainment.

Then tragedy strikes. Ellen and the children are assassinated.  The killer, no supervillain but an ordinary gunman , was hired by a group of businessmen affected by Animal Man’s actions. Buddy hunts them down and avenges his family, but is left broken by the experience. Desperate to save his family, he travels back through time – but finds himself sucked into a conflict with a number of other heroes who have been erased from the timeline. He is just a character in a comic book, and it is the writer who is responsible for all his suffering.

“Who are you? Who did you say you were?”

“Me? I’m the evil mastermind behind the scenes. I’m the wicked puppeteer who pulls the strings and makes you dance. I’m your writer.”

The final encounter between Animal Man and ‘Grant Morrison’, is thankfully not just an example of po-mo nonsense. The culmination of year’s worth of dangling plot-threads, it allows the writer to wrap up the storyline with a flourish, while also addressing the central concern of the book. As a comic that did not shy away from political themes, Animal Man was principally about the defence of the helpless – lab animals, slaughtered dolpins, South Africans suffering oppression.

In a neat inversion, Morrison proposes that the superhumans of DC Comics are themselves helpless victims – of us and our changing tastes in entertainment. The creations that were enjoyed by readers in their childhood have become tarnished, grim and violent vigilantes. Their suffering is the stuff of modern entertainment. Their moral values are irrelevent. The Morrison that Animal Man encounters is unapologetic about this. He is after all only one writer among many, who vented his frustrations with the world through the medium of this comic book, but in the end he is as powerless to change the world as Buddy is.

Confronted with this seemingly uncaring demiurge, we really begin to sympathize with Buddy’s plight and care about the lives of these characters – who are only, lest we forget, commercial products. At one point one of these ‘erased’, creations exclaims: I don’t care what I am. I don’t care if I’m just a minor character in a bad story…I’m not going to let this happen. You hear me? I’ve still got my dignity!

There is even a page where Morrison conjures up some random foes for Buddy to fight in the background, while he addresses the reader and says his thanks to the editors and artistic team that worked on the book. He apologises for the preachy tone of the book – while at the same time making one final attempt to sway the audience to the themes addressed in Animal Man. For this cynical Morrison is just as much a fictional creation as Buddy, whose defeatism is rejected on the very last page.

Emotionally personal and intimate. A classic.

As the Olympics descend upon China, the critiques have begun. Already we are hearing stories of more than 1.5 million “displacements” to clear space for Olympic facilities, reports of human rights abuses, sweatshop labor, and Olympics-related graft. The spotlight will naturally be on China, but China is only part of the story. The modern Olympic Movement itself has been highly controversial – and far from the ‘above politics’ Olympian level that some would have us believe.

If you follow the British press, you may have caught mope-rock singer Morrissey’s latest controversial outburst against the treatment of animals in China. Simon Armitage’s interview can be found here and further comment on the accusation of the Chinese being a ‘subspecies’, here. While Morrissey’s statement is reprehensible, racism at its most dismissive and insidious, it also brings to mind the inherent problems in criticising China itself. The former singer of The Smiths probably knows the only way he can draw attention to his cause – animal welfare – is to be deliberately provocative, because the international community is quite aware of the many civil liberties abuses that occur within China, from forced detention of political subversives, to internet censorship and widespread poverty.

None of that matters though, because China is the future world superpower on the rise. Its story of a massive economic recovery following military incursions by Japan and the disastrous Maoist experiment with industrialisation in the twentieth century would be no less remarkable had the eventual result not been China becoming a major world player. Their position within the international community is consequently very important to the Chinese government and so hosting the Olympic Games represented a major opportunity to woo popular opinion in their favour. In short, the potential profits earned by investment in China outweigh any moral outrage that may be occasioned by foreign criticism.

This book contains a series of essays on different aspects relating to China’s bid to host the Olympics in 2008. The writers include foreign journalists, from sports, economics and political writing, as well as former Chinese political detainees. There is even a photo-essay displaying the hardship faced by construction workers who live and work in Beijing, often having travelled away from far-off provinces to provide for their families.

The quote above is taken from an illuminating essay by Dave Zirin on the dubious history of the Olympic Games. One of the complaints of Chinese government officials in the face of calls for a boycott of the Games (similar to the efforts made to hobble the Soviet Union’s hosting following their invasion of Afghanistan) was that critics were unfairly mixing politics with sports. Zirin shows how political manoeuvring is an essential element of hosting the Games, as the display of competitive prowess is not only inevitably bound up with nationalism, but also provides a platform for host nations. International Olympics Committee president Avery Brundage for example, who supported Adolf Hitler, which he never apologised for, and turned a blind eye to the sins of participating Apartheid nations. He also fervently objected to female athletes entering the games.

The financial cost of hosting the Games is repeatedly stressed. Host cities Montreal and Athens are cited as examples of how crippling debt can often result, with the attendant civil disruption adding salt to the wounds. The welfare of inadequately protected construction workers was also put at risk in the building of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, as well as other Olympic structures erected just for the purposes of capturing the lens of foreign cameras. Homes were demolished to make way for much of this development, such as the aging hutong residences, whose owners were turfed out with little compensation.

For China the Games represented an opportunity to erase the spectre of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Arguments in favour of their bid included citations of the positive social changes that followed the Seoul Games in South Korea. However, this conciliatory move on the part of the international community only served to give China exactly what it wanted. Mia Farrow’s ‘Genocide Olympics’, op-ed piece caused a domino effect that increased pressure on China to review its policy of investment in Darfur, but a broader social change was always unlikely.

There are two Chinas, the one we are allowed to see and the one the Chinese live with. This is a fascinating and very readable collection of essays on that schism.

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