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‘We put our children in the hands of your people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’

Now is his chance indeed: let him who would speak, speak. But he stands tongue-tied, the blood thudding in his ears. A viper: how can he deny it?

‘Excuse me,’ he whispers, ‘I have business to attend to.’ Like a thing of wood, he turns and leaves.

Well folks, I am back. Yesterday was a fantastic day, spent with friends, family and my beautiful bride on a stunning headland by Austinmer beach overlooking the Pacific ocean. It could not have gone better. Stephanie and I had the opportunity to renew our vows in the company of people we wished could have come to our first wedding in Ireland – so instead we brought the wedding to them.

I was free to enjoy the day and its festivities thanks to the sterling work of my fellow bloggers who agreed to lend a hand with ‘A book a day’, this week. Take a bow you folks. I am extremely grateful to you all.

So back to the business of book blogging.

David Lurie is a Cape Town college academic more suited to expounding on his theories about Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Byron through his writing, than actually teaching students. However, his published books have failed to attract any acclaim and his frustrations with his classes aside, it does provide him with an income. With two failed marriages behind him Lurie instead indulges in affairs with college staff, or spending his time with prostitutes, for sexual relief. Inevitably his overly analytical mind ruins whatever pleasure he may gain from these encounters.

Then Lurie embarks on an affair with an eighteen-year old student, which leads to an official complaint from her family and a disciplinary hearing. Refusing to engage with the process, as he sees it as a forced confessional, the professor instead agrees to leave the university.

He travels to his daughter Lucy’s home, an isolated farm in the wilds of the Eastern Cape. Lurie remarks upon her vulnerability to attack living in such a lonely place, but she insists that she has found meaning her. She cares for a number of dogs and introduces her father to Bev, a local woman who euthanises those pets that have been too badly wounded, or are too sick to survive. Lurie dismisses their concerns for animals as inflated sentiment. His daughter in return rejects his emphasis on abstract thinking and academic concerns.

However, when the farm is attacked, both father and daughter are confronted with their own powerlessness and react in very different ways.

Nominally the title of this book refers to the professional misconduct of Lurie. J.M. Coetzee narrates his protagonist’s increasing disenchantment with his life that has led him to the disciplinary impasse with the college board, his refusal to ‘confess’, a product of his own confused feelings on the affair. In his mind his encounter with the student came as a result of passion, something his own ex-wife dismisses by pointing out that no young woman wants to see a man of his age in the throes of sexual climax. Indeed Lurie seems to lust after the student’s youth more than anything. When he later sleeps with someone closer in age to himself he is initially disgusted by her body, but then continues the relationship. It is not like anyone else wants him.

However, Lurie also later feels disgraced by his inability to protect his daughter. Coetzee draws an odd parallel between his refusal to engage the board and Lucy’s to speak to her father about what happened.

In effect, the author tells us the woman who had embraced life in the countryside has been beaten by it. It takes the rarefied academic longer to realize the same.

This book left me angry. Its characters are defeated by life and Lurie’s sub-Yeatsian carping about noble minds tied to aging bodies I could not take seriously.

Dispiriting and defeated.

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.

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