Monday, January 23, 2006

The Dressing Station - Review

Kaplan's memoir is an interesting, gritty read. An interplay of history and politics form the background to which the surgeon applies his surgical experiences, which are vast and varied.

Kaplan is a descriptive writer with a flair for finding beauty in the gore of trauma; his passion for surgery shines through. He makes medicine look sexy and sound easy, and I think balances his enthusiasm with insight into the events around him which have led to the injury and bloodshed witnessed.

I was not always comfortable with Kaplan's views; his comments left me feeling that the surgeon too had his faults, and his short 'holier than thou' chapter conclusions might be better omitted. That said, the epilogue of the book reflects rather more broadly and 'works', being the end of the volume, where it seems rather more appropriate to consider the wider implications of his work.

Moreover, Kaplan's attempts at educating the reader on the circumstances of the situations he finds himself in are a strange mix of too much detail and too little comprehension: especially in terms of the geography, for which I felt maps might greatly benefit.

However, the author pitches his book at just the right level, his audience including laymen. His explanations of the medical conditions were apt and succint, oddly juxtaposed with the hazy perception of the political climate.

I felt a certain increase in laxity through the book, which I found pleasant: I felt I was getting the know the real Kaplan, who was slowly showing the reader more of himself, almost like he was realising it for the first time. He becomes more personal and puports his own view, rather than the general medical or ethical approach.

I felt sad for the surgeon during the book, when he reveals a colleague's drunken honesty (who believes Kaplan has amounted to nothing). It highlights the apparant futility in pursuing one's values whilst maintaining the other areas of life - Kaplan does not seem to have been able to hold down a relationship and his restless sense of adventure lacks stability and credibility in a professional sense on paper, even though it demonstrates a fierce strength of self-belief and confidence to strike out alone.

The Dressing Station leaves us feeling that we ourselves could not undertake the same struggles, and the reality of war, combat and conflict in the world. A dressing station is essentially a first aid base close to the front line; major cases would be unlikely to be saved and it would lack the resources to really make a substantial difference. Only those soldiers with minor injuries could be seen to. This metaphor represents Kaplan himself; one man doing what he can, struggling against a great tide, managing to hold back a few drops whilst great waves cascade around him. This melancholy take reflects the bittersweet nature of the novel, giving it a unique flavour.

Kaplan's second book is shortly to be published. What did other readers think?


Giskin said...

I was also intrigued by this book, AJ. It is uneven in quality of writing, but the gems make up for the slack bits. The blurb for the next one, 'Contact Wounds' sounds surprisingly similar to 'Dressing Station'. The book makes an interesting contrast with 'Suburban Shaman' by Cecil Helman. Helman is also a South African critical of apartheid medicine, and also worked on a cruise ship. However, the styles of writing are completely different. Both are rewarding reads.

Anonymous said...

I think he's brilliant, and humble, both lacking here/

Giskin said...

It's interesting that Helman came across to you as lacking humility. I've met him several times and he doesn't seem to have a huge ego. Perhaps it is because his chapters are vignettes that often have a 'moral' that he comes across this way? His writing style is quite 'knowing' in a way that Kaplan's is not.

Anonymous said...

Its an amazing account and Contact Wounds is a great follow-up. I'd put them both in my top 10 books!