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The fat of the land has become the fat of the supermarket; and the fat of the supermarket has settled around our waistlines. Hunger is not the spectre that stalks the lives of men and women in modern consumer societies: the enemy now is greed.

When I first read Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene I became fascinated with the notion of memes. I was enthused to discover that someone had invented a theory for ‘viral culture’, a unit that represented the transmission of ideas. Dawkins also wrote in a very clear way about evolutionary science, in a manner that engaged the reader and explained concepts that rarely escaped the academic lecture hall. While I do not always agree with Dawkins, as a proselytiser of scientific theories his status on the world stage is essential in contributing to the exchange of ideas.

So when Richard Girling, a writer for the Sunday Times magazine, opens his discussion of greed as a component of human nature with a summary of Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene‘, my expectations were raised. As I have said above, Dawkins is a fine writer, one who inspired vociferous argument from other equally eloquent science writers, such as Daniel Dennett and Steven Jay Gould.

Girling rephrases Dawkins’ argument in his own words, before segueing into an anecdotal discussion of greed. Western society is one with a preponderance of available food, possessions and sex, with Girling initially drawing a connection between contemporary actions and early hominid acquisitiveness.

The difficulties with even this initial section of the book arose for me from the opening chapter. There is a confusion of tone, the scientific discussion mismatched with jocular asides and observations of British society. For the majority of the book Girling makes comparisons between his observations of life in the UK with the various studies of greed under discussion. As a result the arguments presented feel insular, perhaps understandably so given his career in the British press. Still this felt limited.

Further problems emerge when he tackles the global economy, the history of the church, feminism and third world poverty. Perhaps you can tell where I am going with this. So much of the material here is familiar. Well of course, I hear you say, this is the 287th book you have read in as many days. You are going to retrace your steps every now and again.

When Girling mentions the gross profits earned by Goldman-Sachs, I remember reading A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. When the crimes of the Church fall under discussion, I sigh, having endured the horrific descriptions of abuse featured in Geoffrey Robertson‘s excellent book. His condemnation of the WTO and the World Bank is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

There is this sense that Girling has simply absorbed the work of so many other writers and theorists and is simply splurging his interpretation back onto the page. Greed is a fascinating theme, but there is no coherent argument throughout. Is this a work of science, sociology, or economics? Of course an account of this element of human behaviour should touch on these disciplines, but the book itself feels like it is dipping in and out.

You know what? I blame Alain de Botton. Opening with appeals to various received ideas and then indulging in conversational anecdotes, it is the same formula employed by that populist philosopher.

Indulgent, repetitive and superficial. I was not greedy for more.

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.

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