That wonderful image of riding a crocodile reminds me that if this is our inevitable mode of travel in an age of global economic rationalism we must be always vigilant, that we, at any point in the journey, can be taken with the crocodile at feeding time when it is securing its prey. Crocodiles take their victims into the watery depths and kill them before they satisfy their hunger. We as experts in our fields have become victims or perpetrators at the hands of managerialism. Paul’s novel reminds us that if we decide to go along with the ride there is an art to not being responsible for the killing- in other words we must struggle within the new frame of reference to sustain our integrity, endemic to our calling, whether that be in medicine or in developing models of knowledge that lead to problem-solving; they must remain humanitarian whilst cost-effective. Time will tell whether there exists at the heart of this equation an unresolvable contradiction.
Riding a crocodile: A Physician’s Tale has a particular significance for ‘Baby Boomers’ and, of course the impact of baby-boomer mentality on a younger generation who, after all, are confronting problems of a different ilk. Baby boomers reaching the autumn of their days in their professional roles are concerned with mortality in a way that is not merely a philosophical awareness of death. If they have been lucky enough to reach this age with parents still alive they also must deal with the double assault of death and what it means to be an ‘adult child’ as well as a parent. This book explores not only what it is like for all people engaged in the medical profession where death is a constant event to be dealt with but with how death impinges in the psyche at different ages and whether there is ever a possibility that people become expendable. There are two major ironies of course: people over seventy plus and baby boomers considering their movement toward their next decade or so of life contributed financially to medical expertise that has been able to create the technology that extends life and yet under the new regime of economic imperatives might be deemed the first dispensable ones. These issues inform the plot of this remarkable and poignant novel.
Trans-disciplinarity is a major force in the humanities- this novel has played out in dramatic form the extent to which it resides in the practice of medicine. Paul constructs scenarios throughout the novel demonstrating how all disciplines inform the life of a physician. No one after all wants to be a bean counter; not all things can be judged by dollars and cents. His protagonist is a philosopher as well as a practising physician and it takes a particular kind of wise writing to tell a story whilst engaging with philosophical axioms and succeed, simultaneously in sustaining an interest in the narrative. Paul achieves a balance between action and ideas.
Quite apart from the philosophically sound explorations into ethics and the querying of the classical relationship between knowledge and virtue –this is an exciting novel. One is genuinely interested in the characters: the plot is structured with a magician’s hand suspending expectation, disrupting vain predictions and creating a metaphoric model whereby the behaviour of the protagonist, who is both detached and yet immersed, becomes a motif for our engagement in ethical questions – yet he is also each of us, no matter what our occupation, attempting to know the recipient of our training and knowledge and whether we see that recipient as a client, a trainee, a member of a family, or primarily a human being who like us lives a life entailing love, accomplishment, fear, joy , despair and a relentless longing to make sense of this world.
Fiction offers something that cannot be represented by other disciplines (whether history, Journalism, sociology etc.) in that its rendering is experiential and via the characters it can offer a perspectival view of living, enacting exchanges that are emotional as well as Socratic and when it is good it constructs intersecting realms of empathy. I feel the plight of the characters as much as I accept and reject their intellectual understandings.
I believe that all speeches at a launch of a provocative novel must engage in gender issues – it’s surely ideologically polite to do so. My particularly aggressive feminist friends have queried me (and this following comment does not discount me from a feminist sensibility- after all aren’t all intelligent people feminist?)-They have queried: why is it that I have written primarily (though not only) about male writers. I was surprised at the query initially and had not been aware that this is what I had done – I assumed that it was the content of the work rather than the gender of the writer or artist that attracted me-but thinking it through I learnt to reply that perhaps I feel that I understand women but men remain a puzzle for me to unravel. This book we are launching today is definitely written by a man and this is not a criticism – it is an observation that seeks to access how men and woman represent each other. Great novels are less interested in ideological correctness and more interested in investigating ‘truths’ however impossible it might be to capture them. My otherwise genteel and civilized brother, who I should add sustains an unbreakable loyalty to his wife, once said to me “ Ann, don’t you realize that men when meeting a woman always regard her firstly as a potential sexual partner”. I remember replying, despite being somewhat disconcerted by his view, that does he assume that women don’t do the same?. And of course this is why we become healthily repressed (and neurotic according to the Freudian model) and, although one recognizes that need for repression in relation to our sexuality (discontented but civilized) we should be careful not to repress instincts that tell us that economic management does not serve to make us more civilized. I think that this novel represents these dilemmas beautifully. Given my interest in unravelling the problem of what it might be to be a man as opposed to a woman, I have always been intrigued with the relationship between fathers and sons which in my experience seem always to be a troublesome one of a particular kind. Paul, via his protagonist, answers this question for me in a way I had not encountered before. You must read the novel to discover his philosophical view of this: his rendition of the why the father refuses to give approval to the son whilst the son relentlessly and obsessively seeks it is indeed insightful (see pages 168-170).
Thank you Paul for this unique work of art.