“The doctor’s years of experience is not enough, it is not enough that his clinical eye detected what is wrong with them straight away because he has already seen it a thousand times”
Doctors are not always the good guys in novels. It is something that should not surprise us: there are few professions that are so romanticised in fiction and so maligned in private. Characters usually keep to a pattern of honesty and dedication that in the wider world does not correspond to reality. These facts are illustrated in a novel that was all the rage a few years ago, by the renowned Dutch writer Herman Koch. The first words from the protagonist, Dr. Schlosser, are: ”I am a general practitioner.” The journalist Lluís Bonada published an interview with the author in the magazine, El temps. Asked about where the story is set, Koch admitted it was the Costa Brava, where he spends the summers.
Specifically, the author mentions a place between Calella de Palafrugell, Llafranc, Tamariu and Pals. He also gives some clues about his character. He is a murderer but not a monster, and there are things to like about him, as he is attentive to his family and the reader can even identify with his motives for vengeance. He observes work and life with a cynicism that a reader who is also a doctor will find unpleasant, although it allows him to avoid complacency. Asked “Do you know if there are many doctors who behave with the same lack of sensitivity to their patients?” The answer: “I think so. Most general practitioners have told me that a good number of them end up that way... More than one of them has thanked me for saying things publicly.”
What are those things? The expression of socially incorrect feelings of repulsion for the profession and patients, a lack of consideration on behalf of specialists and hospital staff towards the general practitioner… Koch is not a doctor, but he seems to know some. Especially interesting is the character of a professor expelled from university because of his radical opinions, Dr. Aaron Herzl, possibly inspired by an academic who taught unorthodox studies on the personalities of criminals. His opinions are the distillation of coherent and lucid thinking but laden with cynicism.
Here is a taste of what Dr. Schlosser thinks about his patients: “My patients confuse time with attention...What I needed to see I saw in a minute, the other 19 I fill with attention... I make an interested face. Meanwhile, I write something on a piece of paper. Occasionally I ask them to undress behind the screen, but I normally avoid it. Their bodies are already unpleasant with their clothes on… I pretend to look but I think about other things… Some patients can hardly hide their disappointment. A simple prescription? They are disheartened for few seconds, with their pants around their knees. They have asked for a morning off work, they want more for their money… The doctor’s years of experience is not enough, it is not enough that his clinical eye detected what is wrong with them straight away because he has seen it a thousand times... Explaining the work of a family doctor is easy. All he has to do is avoid sending too many patients to the specialists and hospitals… The system would collapse.”»
And to end, some exotic thoughts from professor Herzl: “Culture and the rule of law force us to control our instincts. But instinct is never far away. It waits to attack when no one is paying attention.” “In fact, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is much closer to human nature than we dare openly admit.” “Ninety per cent of women find married men more attractive than single men… Single and available men are like a house that has been empty for too long. There must be something wrong with it.” “The dinosaurs populated our planet for 160 million years and then went extinct. What a waste of time! There is no direct evolutionary line between the dinosaurs and humans. If humanity and the continuance of the species were so important, why have the dinosaurs first?”
Among the novel’s virtues I would highlight these and other shocking reflections, rather than the plot, which is attractive but a bit irregular. In short, summer reading for a holiday on the Costa Brava.