‘Writing is what I am’: Damon Galgut

Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, Damon Galgut’s latest novel is about loneliness and a search for self – emotions the author knows only too well…

Small Circle of Beings (1988) written when he was 24, consists of a superb novella, the title work, and four other stories. The novella is a mother’s heartbreaking account of her child’s illness; the boy is expected to die. She refers to the drugs “wrapping his mind in bandages I cannot penetrate”. During the agonising hospital ordeal, the father announces he is leaving to be with another woman. The narrator tends her son and eventually begins a dangerous relationship with a violent artist. The son recovers yet drifts further and further away from his mother.

Galgut understands these agonies. Diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at six, he lived under a death sentence for five years. “I learned all about mortality too early in life.” (Times) >>>

Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces doesn’t impress

Adam Thorpe’s review in the Guardian doesn’t rate Faulk’s Human Traces as a novel (“Having weathered long exegeses and improbable dialogues on mind and madness, the impatient reader is fully prepared for the real fictional matter to begin.”), but it does sound like it has some powerful passages on clinics, doctors of the mind, and patients.

Cardiologist Mulcahy tells of his heartbreak in moving memoir

[From the Sunday Independent >>>] Risteard Mulcahy, the internationally renowned cardiologist and health campaigner, has candidly spoken of the breakdown of his marriage, which saw him eventually walk out on his wife and six children.

In his recently published book, Memoirs of a Medical Maverick, Mulcahy, 88, son of General Richard Mulcahy, a former leader of Fine Gael, also writes of how he at one time became involved with a woman who herself ended the relationship when she fell in love with an athlete — another woman.

It was a reminder that many, if not all, people were by nature bisexual, but this was so often concealed by the culture we live in. Mulcahy relates his own curiosity about the prospect of homosexual love, of which he had no experience, nor did he ever have a wish to seek such an opportunity. (Indo) >>>

Continue reading “Cardiologist Mulcahy tells of his heartbreak in moving memoir”

Review of A Hospital Odyssey by Gwyneth Lewis

In this review, A Wynn Thomas writes:

“We may no longer all believe in God, but by God, we all believe in the NHS, with the desperate fervour of anxiety otherwise invested in religion. Hospitals are the great sacred sites of our secular world, dedicated to the cult of health, requiring votive offerings to the gods of disease, staffed by a revered priesthood of doctors and consultants, supplying ministering angels in the form of nurses. As Lewis brilliantly shows, no other places in the modern world are more unnervingly revealing of the bewildering blend in our natures of the rational and irrational, the sophisticated and the primal.”

Read the rest here >>>

Review of So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

By Mark Lawson in the Guardian here >>>

Published in the week that President Obama’s attempt to reform American medical coverage reached its legislative climax, So Much for That spine-tinglingly dramatises the reality of falling sick in the US…. In its demonstration of the human consequences of public policy, Shriver’s novel does for medicine whatThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair did for the Chicago meat industry.

The book, though, is as much psychological as political, inspecting its characters’ attitudes to illness and death. The previously selfish Shep, for example, behaves towards Glynis in a way he considers saintly, but she rebukes him for becoming “just another service provider”. Throughout, illness convincingly mutates the behaviour of both patients and carers.

A.M. Homes’ ‘Do Not Disturb’

Read Steven W. Beattie review of A.M. Homes’s story, ‘Do Not Disturb’ to see if the story is too disturbing for you to then go out and get your hands on to read: “Imagine you’re a 38-year-old doctor who has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. How would you react? Would you give in and wait to die or would you fight? Now imagine you’re that woman’s husband. Would you step up with unerring support or would you cut and run? Now imagine that your marriage has been on the rocks for some time leading up to the diagnosis. Would the life-changing advent of a potentially killing disease bring you closer together or push you further apart?” >>> the rest

Doctor’s notes in running for John Llewellyn Rhys prize

(From the Guardian website:) A memoir by Canadian doctor James Maskalyk about the six months he spent working in a contested Sudanese border town is competing with Booker prize winner Aravind Adiga for this year’s John Llewellyn Rhys prize.

Maskalyk’s memoir, Six Months in Sudan, started life as a blog written from his hut in Abyei, Sudan in 2007, as he tried to tell his family and friends about his days working for Médecins Sans Frontières, treating malnourished children and staying out of the soldiers’ way.

Thoughts on Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being

Being a doctor is serious business. Humans have endowed health with much importance and so their caretaker on earth, the medic, possesses gravitas. Yet according to Mr. Kundera, “A doctor is [merely] someone who consents to spend his life involved with human bodies and all they entail. That basic consent (not talent or skill) enables him to enter the dissecting room during the first year of medical school and persevere for the requisite number of years.” A doctor is this as opposed to someone with a special calling to cure people, because such missions are a sham in our tragically fallen world.

Erotic friendship
Tomas, the central male character of this novel, learns this truth through love. One day at the hospital, during a break between operations, Tomas gets a call from Tereza, the girl with whom he has been uncharacteristically absorbed of late. He is very happy to hear from her and yet, because of a previously arranged date with another woman, he makes her wait a day before allowing her to visit him. Then, totally against his polygamous nature, he lets her move in.

From his family Tomas has inherited a fear of women, which, however, has never prevented him from desiring them – a paradox out of which grows his concept of the ‘erotic friendship’: “The important thing is to abide by the rule of threes. Either you see a woman three times in quick succession and then never again, or you maintain relations over the years but make sure that the rendevous are at least three weeks apart.”

Prague ‘68
Tomas tries to behave differently with Tereza; he even goes so far as to marry her. This is his attempt to climb out of the fallen world into some kind of higher realm. But he fails to give up his womanizing. “He became aware of his failure … on approximately the tenth day after his country was occupied by Russian tanks. It was August 1968, and Tomas was receiving daily phone calls from a hospital in Zurich. The director there, a physician who had struck up a friendship with Tomas at an international conference, was worried about him and kept offering him a job.”

One reason to be worried about Tomas is that he had by this time been branded an outspoken intellectual, because he had written an article comparing the Czech communists to Oedipus and recommending that they too should put their eyes out, metaphorically.

Tomas and Tereza, for very different reasons, decide to move to Zurich, but very soon afterwards, because Tereza remains unhappy and Tomas continues his infidelities, Tereza packs up and goes back to ‘occupied’ Czechoslovakia. And, because “it was unbearable for Tomas to stay in Zurich imagining Tereza living on her own in Prague,” he too returns home.

Spineless colleagues
Upon his return to Prague from Zurich Tomas is advised by the chief surgeon at his hospital to retract the troublesome article: “You know as well as I do,” he says, “that you’re no writer or journalist or saviour of the nation. You’re a doctor and a scientist. I’d be very sad to lose you …” Tomas is considered the best surgeon in the hospital and everyone expects him to retract his previous statements. But he refuses, hoping his colleagues will back him, and he will thus be able to stay on at the hospital. “But his colleagues never dreamed of threatening to resign,” and Tomas has to go.

He goes into general practice, where the “mechanical aspirin-medicine he practiced at the clinic had nothing in common with his concept of medicine… He considered himself more civil servant than doctor.” One day he is visited by a man from the Ministry of the Interior who flatters him about his skills: “‘Your place is at the operating table..,'” and who asks, “‘Tell me, Doctor, do you really think that Communists should put out their eyes? You, who have given so many people the gift of health?'”

Naive doctor
The man tells Tomas that he is needed by society irrespective of what he has said in the past. “‘Nobody requires a doctor to understand politics,'” he offers by way of bait. All Tomas has to do is sign a prepared statement declaring his love for the Soviet Union etc. He is being asked to put on the mask of a naive doctor who has been manipulated by the intelligentsia.

Tomas refuses and resigns from the clinic the next day, “assuming (correctly) that after he had descended voluntarily to the lowest rung of the social ladder (a descent being made by thousands of intellectuals in other fields at the time), the police would have no more hold over him and he would cease to interest them.”

He quits in order to relieve himself of a burden: “What could be at the bottom of it all but a rash and not quite rational move to reject what proclaimed itself to be his weighty duty ..?” “Whenever anything went wrong on the operating table, he would be despondent and unable to sleep. He would even lose his taste for women. The responsibility of his profession had been like a vampire sucking his blood.”

Finally, Tomas and Tereza move to the country and join a collective farm where the only medicine Tomas practices is putting his dying dog to sleep with an injection, and setting a farm hand’s dislocated shoulder. Tereza feels guilty:

‘Tomas,’ she said … ‘everything bad that’s happened in your life is my fault. It’s my fault you ended up here, as low as you could possibly go.’
‘Low? What are you talking about?’
‘If we had stayed in Zurich, you’d still be a surgeon… Surgery was your mission.’
‘Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.’