Heart transplants, Barnard and celebrity

2010-02-10 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Transplant Men

Jane Taylor

Jacana

“EACH suicide is unique. It often stands as the major achievement of the life which precedes it.” This ­unusual novel opens with these words from the investigator of a violent ­suicide.

He assembles the personal archive of the suicide victim, Guy Hawthorne, which forms the main text of the book. Hawthorne’s archive of papers and video recordings document his fascination with the celebrated heart-transplant pioneer Dr Christiaan ­Barnard as well as his own obsession with being the recipient of his twin brother’s donated kidney.

Barnard performed the first heart transplant in 1967, and the fictional Hawthorne delves into the ethics of modern medicine and organ transplants as well as into the nature of ­celebrity.

He relentlessly examines his own peculiar and guilty intimacy with his brother’s kidney that lives ­inside him and comes to dominate his existence. The novel also reflects ­tangentially on the South Africa of the sixties and ­seventies.

The narrative style combines ­elements of memoir, biography and the investigative techniques of both the scientist and the detective. The storytelling is taut but multilayered, often playful and witty, and it skilfully incorporates details of Barnard’s life — from charismatic surgeon to fading Lothario; of the first South African heart transplant donors and recipients; of Hawthorne’s intense relationship with his twin brother (and his kidney!); as well as digressions that include Eschel Rhoodie, a key player in the “Information Scandal” of the late seventies, Pan African Congress leader Robert Sobukwe — Barnard had links to both — and the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In a way, Hawthorne sets himself up as a one-person truth commission into organ-transplant ethics and the life of Barnard, but he also tries to ­establish personal reparations for his own guilt and complicities.

Jane Taylor, a professor in theatre studies whose previous writing ­includes the political thriller Of Wild Dogs, has crafted a unique and ­impressive novel. Oh, and please don’t judge this excellent book by its uninspiring cover.

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