Beginning in Autumn 1930, we find Isherwood living in a “large, dingy flat” above a busy street of shops, where prostitutes gather beneath his window. The flat is owned by Fräulein Schroeder, who was once fairly well off but like so many other Germans has fallen on hard times.
She calls Isherwood “Herr Issyvoo” and takes a keen interest in his life, and that of her other lodgers.
Such is her poor financial situation, that Frl Schroeder has had to take in five lodgers, leaving her without a room of her own. Instead, she “sleeps in the living room, behind a screen, on a small sofa with broken springs”.
Frl Schroeder is just one of the many eccentric and colourful characters Isherwood brings to life on the page. Another is fellow lodger Frl Mayer, a musical hall yodler, actress, proud Bavarian and “ardent Nazi” whose natural enemy is Frau Glauterneck, the Galician Jewess who lives in the apartment below theirs.
Another is the flamboyant American singer and wannabee actress Sally Bowles whom Isherwood meets one evening, early in October, dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders “and a little cap like a page boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head”,
Isherwood notices her emerald green nails, her nicotine tainted hands and “very large brown eyes”.
Bowles was based on the 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross. Whimsical, flamboyant, stylish, promiscuous and dreamy (and not overly talented despite her ambitions), she is symbolic of the free-spirited Jazz Age in Berlin that flourished in Weimar-era Germany before the Nazis snuffed it out.
Isherwood is immediately drawn to Bowles, and she to him; their platonic friendship a sharp contrast to Bowles’ many lovers.
It is not hard to understand why Isherwood moved to Berlin. A gay man from a wealthy and conservative family from the north west of England, he would have found the German city’s plethora of gay bars, cabaret and experimental theatre alluring alongside its acceptance of homosexuality.
But he arrived there as this tolerance and acceptance was about to crushed by the Nazi regime, and as anti-semitism and intolerance becomes part of the chatter of everyday Germans looking for scapegoats for their economic woes.
Indeed many of the people Isherwood formed close relationships with during his time in Berlin, would have been prime targets for the Gestapo such as the gay couple Otto and Peter, who we find the author living with in a beach house on Rügen Island in the summer of 1931.
Then there are the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family, who own a Berlin department store. Isherwood befriends their precocious 18-year-old daughter Natalia, whom he accompanies on outings where they discuss art and literature He also forms a friendship with their cousin Bernard, a gay man, and a target for the Nazis.
Indeed Isherwood himself would have been in great personal danger had he chosen to remain in Berlin after the Nazis rose to power. He fled Berlin in May 1933 spent some time back in London and China, before emigrating to the US in 1939 and living in California.
I enjoyed being taken into this now long gone, but exotic world that Isherwood brings so vividly to life with his stories and anecdotes. He was a gifted storyteller with an ear finely tuned to the nuances of speech and character and well worth checking out for those looking for a fly-on-the-wall journalistic literary experience, that warned of the horrors to come.
Galgut said it was an “abstract allusion” to the family’s youngest daughter Amor Swart, whose affection for their long-suffering black domestic servant Salome is a central theme of the book.
“But,” says Galgut, “I wanted to tie it in with a parallel sense that if one loves South Africa it has to be a dark kind of love”.
This “dark love” is apparent in the two Galgut novels I read back-to-back, The Good Doctor and The Promise, and is something I can relate too deeply, even though I left South Africa 22 years ago.
A beautiful, but troubled land, South Africa gets under your skin and in your bones: if you’ve grown up there, you never really leave – even if you do physically.
Galgut’s gift is to draw from that dark well of South African history, culture and experience, and build an engrossing story with deeply South African characters, and to unsettle and enthrall the reader.
“Damon Galgut has written a lovely, lethal, disturbing novel,”
The story of The Good Doctor takes place in a crumbling, ill-equipped rural hospital next to a backwater town in what was once a Black “homeland” – one of a series of puppet states created by the white nationalist apartheid regime to separate blacks from whites – but is now forgotten, left to decay in the new South Africa.
The title of the book refers to Dr. Laurence Waters, an idealistic medical school graduate who comes to the dysfunctional hospital hoping to “make a difference” as part of his year of compulsory, post-graduate community work.
His arrival and subsequent stay at the hospital is narrated by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned and bitter veteran physician, one of just a handful of staff that keep the medical facility barely functioning under the management of its administrator and head surgeon Dr Ngema.
So ill-equipped is the hospital, that patients with more serious injuries have to be transported to the big city hospital, a long drive through the veld.
The hospital’s small band of staff include the Satanders – a doctor couple from Cuba who quarrel a lot about staying in South Africa – and a troubled black orderly called Tehogo, who is symbolic of that “lost generation” of unskilled Black South Africans, left on the margins of society after the fall of apartheid.
In some kind of precarious and delicate balancing act, the hospital has maintained it place in the natural order of things, keeping its distance from the chaos beyond its boundaries, until idealistic Dr Waters arrives and shatters its island status.
Race relations, the juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty, the battle for power in the new South Africa and the naivety of those who think they can change things are all meshed together in Galgut’s novel with devastating and mesmerising effect.
Galgut also has a way of conjuring up a strange kind of nostalgia (though that may be the wrong word) among those readers who lived through those historical times.
Hanging on the wall in the hotel foyer (I remember this so well) was a portrait of stern-faced Lucas Mangope in all his official puppet-state pomp and regalia, staring down on us wealthy whites, as we arrived for our luxury holidays and a roll of the dice at the roulette table.
It was of course absurd that we (well-off white South Africans) should enjoy our luxurious buffet breakfasts, sip cola-tonics and lemonades poolside and pull the handles of slot machines, all whilst being waited on hand and foot by an army of underpaid black servants.
Equally, it is absurd that young white graduate doctor – Galgut’s Dr Laurence Waters – working in a backwater hospital should think that he can “make a difference”; that he should be so naïve, reflects perhaps that unrealistic feeling we all had, standing to vote in the first elections in 1994, that the past could simply be swept under the rug.
While The Good Doctor confines itself to a relatively short period of narrative time, as well as a specific era in South Africa – the birth of the new democratic country – Galgut’s The Promise starts in 1986, during the State of Emergency, and spans 30 years. Over that time, and set against the backdrop of famous historical events in the evolution of the country towards democratic rule, it tells the tragic story of the Swart family and their haunting farm set amongst the stony koppies and veldt outside Pretoria.
The story is told through eyes and deaths of four members of the Swart family: Rachel Swart or “Ma”, her husband Herman “Manie” Swart (whose post-funeral gathering occurs during the momentous 1995 Rugby World Cup Final), Anton, their first child and only son, and Astrid, the middle daughter.
Connecting them all together is Amor, the youngest child, who carries the family’s guilt – a white person’s guilt for the things done to black South Africans under the apartheid system – and who is determined to fulfil her mother’s dying wishes that their faithful and long-suffering black servant Salome, be granted the deed to the crumbling house, that has been her home all the years she has served the family.
Galgut has a real gift for capturing the feeling of a place and time: for example that deep-seated resentment old Afrikaaners felt about the ending of apartheid and having to share the country with black people, but also their supreme and undying love of rugby.
While some family members are unhappy that the television is playing during what is meant to be a solemn gathering, Ockie, the unloved husband of Manie’s sister Marina has a “warm glow only partly due to Klipdrift” (a famous South African brandy enjoyed with Coke).
In another episode, Galgut writes how Anton, a white child, suckled on the nipple of Salome, such was the motherly bond despite the rules of apartheid forbidding such behaviour. While this may sound extreme to some readers, it was common, even when I was growing up, for black domestic workers (who we called “maids” or “nannies”) to care for white children as if they were their own, to bathe, clothe, feed and nurture them.
“My first nanny was a kind of substitute mother for me when I was really little…I’m talking the age of 2,3,4. Her name was Salome and I named the character after her, partly in tribute to her.”
“As you can imagine,” Galgut says later, “quite meaningful and intimate bonds can spring up in an artificial relationship like that”.
Drawing on the greats that have come before him – Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and others – Galgut is the latest gifted writer to explore the complexities of South Africa’s dark history, its often paradoxical race relations, and its troubled democratic rebirth.
He does so, in my opinion, with less literary pretention than those who have come before him. His writing style is more direct and accessible (you could say “modern”) but still poetic. That’s even the case when he’s writing about Joel Stransky kicking that magical drop goal, while an Afrikaaner family cheers him on, but refuses to embrace the New South Africa that allowed that moment to happen.