Book review: The Physician of Sanlucar by Jonathan Falla

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A runaway doctor, his married mistress, her gay-leaning husband, noble tribes-people: these, plus the craggy, rubble-strewn Patagonian wilderness, and a villain of Scottish extraction, are the characters.

The Physician of Sanlucar

by Jonathan Falla

Aurora Metro Books, 224pp, £8.99

It might have become a cloud-swept sexathon with syringes and flashing machetes to heighten the action. But, The Physician of Sanlucar, although charged with compelling narrative and moral edge, eschews both melodrama and bathos.

We begin on the cusp of the First World War. The skies of Patagonia are about to be romanced by the chittering presence of a biplane called the Dove. Rooted below is the butt of the action, Matthieu Macanan, a young French physician in the backstreets of Punta Arenas, tending the woes of native Indians, raddled farmers, and the sex-starved sailors there to avail of “visiting whores…mestizo slags”.

Macanan soon becomes expert in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. He is an altruist, aloof, obsessively private. His sole acquaintance is Captain Prothero, commander of a cargo boat that plies the Chilean coast.

Prothero’s memoir, at decent intervals, casts light on Macanan’s life and peregrinations and on the war-threatened times they inhabit. Matthieu is summoned to Tierra del Fuego to treat sick natives. There he encounters the sheepman, Lovell, who goads him concerning his allegedly premature flight from university, and questions his right to practise. The doctor is shaken.

That shake is so great that Macanan later abandons his base at Punta Arenas and flees to Sanlucar, to bury himself, to begin again, with his handful of volumes of poetry, his shack, and an outhouse to work in. Little has happened by way of dramatics; the pictures are all in Macanan’s head, the emotions all inside his gut. The reader dangles. Falla weaves a teasing chimera: Who is this doctor? What is his past? Why is he here? Is he indeed a doctor at all?

The arrival of Austrians, the Kahns, breaks the novel’s stasis, and the cloistered, secretive doctor is soon prised open by Mrs Kahn, the sylphlike Silke, who, with her husband, plans to link Patagonia’s communities. Their biplane, the fragile Dove, is a daring, almost incongruous symbol of their hopes. Mrs Kahn is a nurse. Theo, her husband, is the dreamer. Their marriage is largely symbiotic. Kahn seeks his intimacies elsewhere, with other men.

Matthieu’s attraction to Silke Kahn is, for the reader, all the more potent because he conceals those inclinations. When Theo departs for Buenos Aires on putative business (in truth on a sexual expedition) Matthieu’s scruples are overwhelmed. He treats Silke’s migraines by giving her heroin. Hooked on the object of his love, he can’t at first see that she in turn is becoming addicted to the drug.

Their affair is touchingly brought to life. Falla allows the lovers sufficient clandestine space in which to grow before the world wakes up to the truth. The world, it turns out, is their greatest threat. For, inexorably converging upon the main narrative, another tale, alluded to by Prothero from the outset, is carrying with it the novel’s conclusion.

It features a cargo ship carrying gold which has run aground off Sanlucar. Its cargo attracts Patagonia’s pioneer thugs, among them Lovell, Macanan’s nemesis, who in the novel’s final hurrah indulges in cruelty and slaughter, targeting native Indian children as principal victims.

Lovell’s presence makes Matthieu realise that Silke must hear the truth about his past; his revelations are poignant, tragic, all too believable, and they cast him in an almost heroic light which makes his inevitable fate and that of Silke the more touching.

Lovell’s villainy, almost comically sadistic, is over-egged. That apart, Falla’s construction and execution of the novel are beautifully judged. Theo, like Lovell, is a device, as is Prothero, bringing the principal characters sharply into focus.

It’s a modus operandi carried out with poetic subtlety, hard to spot because the writing itself is so joyously accomplished, light, almost airborne. And witty too, with a wry, anachronistic treat for fans of the movie, Casablanca, dropped like a feather to tickle the fancy. A smirk in the slipstream. Go, discover!

TOM ADAIR