BEF 2011/23 – Doctor Sot [Ireland: English]

10/06/2011

The title of the story in which he appears gives away Doctor Carl O’Connor’s worst-kept secret, that he is self-medicating with one of the world’s most traditional anaesthetics: alcohol.  ‘Doctor Sot,’ by Irish writer Kevin Barry, follows the physician as he buys his “naggins,” volunteers for a health outreach programme, meets some “new-age travellers” and crashes his car.  Somewhere among all of this Doctor Sot runs his surgery, is moved by the beauty of a strange young woman, and has a rushed lunch with is wife.  This is a busy story that reads like an episode of Heartbeat but is not without irony, tenderness, and genuine sadness.

It is often an expectation that a society’s professionals should embody their vocation to perfection.  An intellectual who professes ignorance is somehow compromised, as if he should know everything; a pacifistic soldier is not a contradiction.  And a doctor, we feel, ought to be boisterously healthy, or at least so far as is in his power to be so.  This expectation is hugely unfair, idealistic and hypocritical.  Who holds themselves to such absolutes?  But Doctor Sot, as his unfortunate nom de guerre suggests, is a pathological case who is more harm to himself than help to others.

Doctor Sot is a man who suffers from a sickness of the spirit: he has been brought low by constant attendance to the suffering of others, and he escapes it through drink.  “The careful study of sickness had taken a great toll from him;” the Doctor’s treacherous sympathy had slowly but surely penetrated the cordon sanitaire so necessary to someone in his profession.  It is little wonder that he should have resigned himself to this nihilism when his surgery was now “only [patronised] by the old and fatalistic.”  And so who can blame him when he glimpses, however fleetingly, a way back to the “illusion of permanence…finagled by love”?

This is one of the great strengths of Kevin Barry’s story: there is nobody at whom we can comfortably point the finger of blame.  The only reasonable candidate is the Doctor, but he is a doubly sympathetic character, in his own nature, and in the sympathy the reader feels for him.  Doctor Carl O’Connor is not a violent drunk, his wife appears to truly (and tragically) love him, and he is a man touched by the sickness of others and moved by the sight of beauty.

‘Doctor Sot’ is a dark piece that is initially relieved by a kind of desperate comedy.  I call it desperate because without it the story would be bleaker than the grey mountain shale and clouded skies of the Irish landscape, and though he isn’t laughing, the Doctor is certainly aware of the ridiculous and sometimes absurd events of his day.  When he goes to take his leave of the travellers to whom he has come to spread sage advice, he is, true to his name, besotted, and manages perhaps only a few metres before crashing his car.  Suddenly the campers are the ones providing the care, a role reversal that drives the comedy of a scene that is pitiable and empty of anything to laugh at.  The Doctor has a cake with him that he planned to take home to Sal, his wife, but he feels compelled to offer it to his carers by way of thanks, and the apology he offers up to Sal then and there, and to his wrecked car, is both tender and achingly ironic, going far beyond some lost sponge and cream.

There are wolves in our valley – this is what Doctor Sot knew.  We do not know when they will attack us but attack us they surely will, with their hackles heaped and drool sheering from between their yellow teeth…The careful study of sickness had taken a great toll from him but a moment’s connection with this young woman had lifted him…

The young woman is Mag, one among the new-age travellers who is “remarkably beautiful and vital,” and in whom Doctor Sot sees a kind of Celtic Panacea and follows up the mountain under the aegis of the Health Board.  But what he hopes to achieve is not even clear to himself.  Not until after charming the campers with his flushed geniality, not until the accident that forces him to spend the night in one of their caravans, does the Doctor so much as spy Mag, squatting to piss among the bushes like a wild animal.  She invites him back to her caravan where they talk into the night and where the scene closes with Doctor Sot having a Frankenstein moment:

Doctor Sot slid a hand from beneath the blanket and lightly, very lightly he laid it against her face.  He felt the tiny fires that burned there beneath her skin.  Her lashes were unspeakably lovely as they lay closed over her light sleep.  If Doctor Sot could draw into his palm these tiny fires and place them with his own, he happily would.

And that’s it?  Fade to black with the Doctor’s cold knuckles gently leeching the youthful warmth from the girl’s cheek, not ablaze himself, but not completely extinguished either?  No.  Not content to break our hearts once, Barry takes us back down the mountain to Sal, who, having received his call to say he won’t be home until the following day, makes her preparations and turns in for the night with a final gesture more commonly reserved for the dead, but that possesses all the familiarity of locking doors and drawing curtains.

For fear that he would get back early, she would go and lay cloths now over all the mirrors of the house.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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One Response to “BEF 2011/23 – Doctor Sot [Ireland: English]”

  1. Harry Elliot Says:

    Another example of how the Bible (physician, heal thyself) professes insight but good fiction delivers it.


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