Out of Africa

11 Dec 2016


WITH its dichotomous backdrop of beauty and turmoil, Africa has provided fertile ground for the imagination of writers, inspiring several literary works that have explored the region’s many complexities. A recent venture into this fascinating landscape comes from author Robert Glancy, who paints a dark but witty portrait of “a broken nation” in his new novel, Please Do Not Disturb.

The story is set in the fictional eastern African country of Bwalo, the “sweet soul of Africa”, with events revolving around the nation’s independence day when the state’s ruler, King Tafumo — the man who brought freedom to the land, ridding it of its British oppressors before himself turning into a brutal dictator — emerges from his palace and delivers his annual address to the public. The tale is told through multiple points of view, its intersecting first-person narratives ultimately converging to a violent crescendo that will shake the nation and have far-reaching consequences.

Five different voices come together to weave the threads of the yarn. Some of the narrators are natives, others are expats, but all unwittingly become tangled in a life-changing experience.

One day, one event, seen through five very diverse points of view

Charlie is the son of Scottish parents, brought up in a country of “black people, tea and sunshine”. His father manages the Mirage Hotel, giving him access to the establishment’s assorted guests. His habit of eavesdropping on the adults often gives him the chance to overhear secrets that he is too young and innocent to fully understand.

Sean is an Irish writer and teacher struggling with his second novel. He drinks too much, is in a toxic relationship with his crazed fiancée, and is very upset about a wonky, rotten bookcase in the university library which, to him, has come to symbolise everything about “this wonderful, beautiful country, bursting with so much potential and greatness” that he knows will never be realised.

Josef is a minister in Tafumo’s government as well as the reason Tafumo has a government — he paved the way for the latter’s rise to power, creating the myths that helped the dictator transcend from “real man to false god”. But Josef knows too much, and when he finds himself blacklisted and fallen from favour, he realises that his life is in danger.

Hope is Josef’s first wife, a woman who married “a brave man who risked his life to free [the] nation” but then saw their marriage fall apart. She works as Tafumo’s nurse, helping the old man maintain the illusion of power while he wastes away behind the scenes.

Finally there’s Jack, a smuggler bringing something into Bwalo. Just as Jack starts to realise what’s in his possession, the reader starts to get a sense of what’s about to unfold.

“Besides the king’s palace, our hotel was the biggest building in town. But Dad said it was all about the way you looked at things. And when they finished painting the hotel again, I understood. Under the burst-yolk sun it shone brand new and when I squinted it evaporated into mist, the sign suspended in haze: Hotel Mirage. She was repainted because the biggest day of the year was approaching, the Glorious Day of Our Splendid Independence. Which most of us just called the Big Day. A day when the king spoke to his nation, a day when everyone from across the country came to celebrate, a day when people sang, danced and polished their skin with Vaseline. A day, Dad said, when everyone made a big hoopla out of a wee fracas. The day celebrated booting out the men who stole Bwalo. When I asked how you steal a whole country, Dad said there’s nothing an Englishman can’t steal. When I asked if we’d be kicked out, Dad said they never kick out the Celts, but Mum said, yeah right, and when I asked what she meant they told me to stop asking so many bloody questions. I stood with Dad and Ed at the front of the hotel and watched as the guest arrived. When the taxi pulled up, the passenger stumbled out, and Dad whispered through his smile, ‘Steel yourselves, men, we got a live one here.” — Excerpt from the book

The dictator who stifles the voices of dissent is, ironically, not given a voice here. Instead, the novel relies on Charlie, Sean, Josef, Hope, and Jack — as well as occasional, brief snippets from DJ Cheeseandtoast’s Bwalo Radio broadcasts — to help readers see the stark reality of a struggling nation as it prepares for its ‘Big Day’. The characters tell us about their situations, sometimes experiencing the same events and relaying them from different angles. It takes a while for things to fall into place and for readers to get a clearer idea of what is actually going on. And when they do, the picture that emerges is distressing, poignant, and disturbingly authentic.

The narrators don’t get an equal share of focus. Some, like Jack, for instance, only exist to further the story. Others are fully developed and play an intrinsic role in the drama that unfolds, although sometimes their interactions and dialogues seem a bit affected. Nearly all are flawed, either harbouring secrets about their past, battling their own demons, or struggling with the consequences of their actions and choices. They may not be the most memorable characters you’ll ever come across, but these individuals are distinct enough to be interesting and while the situations they find themselves in are quite exceptional, their views still make them relatable.

The author contrasts Charlie’s innocence with the jadedness of Sean, Josef and Hope, and even though the style and tone at times betray the fact that there is just one hand behind the prose, the multiple-perspective technique is still successful in presenting an engaging story. It is to Glancy’s credit that a novel with such underlying darkness remains entertaining from start to finish. Please Do Not Disturb isn’t as emotionally intense as other African novels that are tonally harsher, and the levity shows that even a gentle touch can effectively convey heavy issues. Meanwhile, the dry wit keeps the book from becoming too morose even when the themes at its core explore harsh terrains.

As the characters relay their tales, their accounts unveil the backstory of the land and its people. It is impressive how the writer brings the sights and sounds of the region to life by skilfully entwining the imagery into the story instead of droning on in dull, descriptive paragraphs. The vivid world that Glancy has created in Please Do Not Disturb seems sadly realistic, and the dictatorship angle feels all too familiar for a reader in a country with a history of military men derailing democracy by anointing themselves head of the state.

Perhaps the realism also comes from the fact that the author actually has first-hand experience of his subject matter. Glancy — who was born in Zambia, raised in Malawi, educated in the UK, and currently lives in New Zealand — seems to have drawn upon his own experiences of growing up in Africa. The character of young Charlie, in particular, appears indebted to Glancy’s upbringing in Malawi, and one can’t help but wonder if the writer felt any of Sean’s frustrations in writing his second book. Glancy’s first novel, the corporate comedy Terms & Conditions, that was peppered with footnotes and built around the idea that no one reads the fine print of contracts, was a quirky, fun read, but it shares almost no similarities with the writer’s second effort. While that illustrates the author’s range, it also means that if you liked or disliked the previous book, there is no guarantee you will feel the same way about his new one.

On the whole, Please Do Not Disturb is a well-crafted, thought-provoking look at a difficult reality. Its story may be deeply rooted in the soils of Africa, but you don’t have to belong to the region to find its premise relevant. The novel’s exploration of the horrors of dictatorship in a struggling, postcolonial region is realistic and arresting, and despite its heavy themes, the author’s affable style makes the book an enjoyable read.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.

Please Do Not Disturb
By Robert Glancy
Bloomsbury, US
ISBN: 978-1632864307

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 11th, 2016