“All the stories in the world have already been told ... but our stories have not been told from every angle.” — Robert Glancy
AFTER amusing us with the tale of an amnesiac lawyer in his debut novel Terms & Conditions, Robert Glancy now takes us to a fictional African kingdom in his second book, Please Do Not Disturb, which takes a poignant look at the downfall of a dictator. In this conversation with Books&Authors, Glancy tells us about the inspiration behind his latest novel and shares his experiences of the beautiful continent where he was born and raised.
How would you describe your latest novel?
Please Do Not Disturb follows five very different people in the lead-up to the Big Day, which is a huge independence day celebration of a small, crumbling African kingdom. More importantly, it is the only day in the year that the ailing king comes out to talk to his people. He is a cuckoo-clock dictator — he only pops out from time to time. The book has a very colourful cast of people, from hip-hoppers, hustlers, buffaloes, and drunken Irish men to a dictator who is madder than a bag of snakes. There is something in there for everyone.
How much of Please Do Not Disturb was inspired by your childhood in Africa?
I stole liberally from reality. I peeled lots of the events right out of my life experience.
Bwalo is a very thinly veiled version of Malawi. Tafumo, the fictional dictator, is based on Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s real dictator. He was a strange man who controlled Malawi with an iron fist. He banned all media bar the BBC, which whispered in on the airwaves; he banned miniskirts; he didn’t let men grow their hair; he got rid of people who stood up to him; and he dressed like an Englishman. Having lived in Britain for so many years, Banda was a chimera, part British and part Malawian.
Charlie is a warped version of me, inspired by memory and a hilarious diary I found from when I was young, which reminded me how naïve I was. Sean is based on a crazy friend of my father’s, Hope is a mix of my mother and her nursing friends from Malawi, and Josef and the rest are reflections of real people who I knew, or knew of, in Malawi.
The story is told through the eyes of five characters. Why did you decide to use this multiple-perspective approach?
Each time I wrote it from an omniscient perspective I hated my own voice in it. The characters were rich and real enough without me bumbling into the picture. Also, to avoid proclamations about Malawi or Africa in general — the world is already stuffed with plenty of those — I wanted it all to be tightly woven into the point of view of very different characters.
I was conscious of two things. Of Chinua Achebe saying: “We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometimes see what the owner of the house has ignored. But they must visit with respect.” The second was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s superb lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. And I felt that I resolved the potential pitfall of the single story trap by splitting the story into five complementary, and at times conflicting, narratives.
How did you choose the main narrators of the story? You could have told the tale from the point of view of a number of other characters such as the Hotel Mirage’s owner or manager, or someone from pop star Truth’s entourage. What made Charlie, Sean, Josef, Hope, and Jack the best choices?
Great question! All the stories in the world have already been told; we’ve been telling them to each other since time began, but our stories have not been told from every angle. So I spent a lot of time just looking for the most interesting angles to tell this story, and the best angles were Sean, Jack, Josef, Charlie, and Hope.
In some sense the book is a dichotomy between Charlie’s very innocent view of his utopian world, balanced by Hope’s rather more cynical view of her dystopian world.
If I’m being honest, it all sounds so calm, calculated, and academic now, but in truth I spent years writing the book from so many angles until finally these five characters won the war and came out as the most entertaining.
It is particularly interesting that King Tafumo himself hasn’t been given a voice here...
Yes, I knew there was no real point in giving him a voice. First of all, leaders like him are very limited in their self-reflection. More to the point, leaders, and particularly dictators, are to some extent merely amalgamations of the false images they project. I liked the idea of just sewing Tafumo together with all these false images and the ‘idea’ of who he was. To some he is a god, to others the devil.
I’m a huge fan of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and reading those books you see that the main characters — Kurtz and Gatsby — are, in fact, rarely given their own voice. You see them mainly through the eyes of the other characters; they are constructs of fragmented assumptions, prejudices and misconceptions. That fascinated me. The technique allows the characters to go beyond the limits of a human — they become an ideal, and then, most interestingly, they fall short of that ideal.
Also, these old dictators spend their lives preaching, patronising, and spreading their voice and propaganda. I figured they have enough airtime in real life without me devoting a book to more egomaniacal ramblings.
Did you consume a lot of African literature in your youth?
My parents had an amazing library full of Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, lots of Paul Theroux. Although Theroux’s books were banned in Malawi, my parents had a few illegal copies stashed away — illicit books hidden in brown paper bags. Gosh, the intrigue! No wonder I became a writer. Also, I love William Boyd, Nkem Nwankwo, Giles Foden, Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller, and, more recently, the wonderful Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo.
Please Do Not Disturb is both thematically and stylistically very different from your first novel. How did the experience of writing the second novel differ from the first?
Every book is a reaction to the last. Terms & Conditions was strangely placeless; it sort of existed in a corporate bubble in some ways, as I didn’t want descriptions of place to slow the comedy pace. But I knew Please Do Not Disturb was all about place, about building a country, a very surreal country that had to be carefully framed to be believed. That I loved, and I loved writing it. Because this book was so personal to me, I really was pleased that I managed to translate a lot of my own life into entertainment that I hope brings some joy to people.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
I always have a couple of books on the boil at the same time, so it’s a question of which one wins the race to the finish. One is almost, nearly, not-too-far-off finished. Although I’ll temper that by saying the last mile of the marathon is always the hardest. It’s a very different book again, a coming-of-age story about two boys told through their diaries. It’s about idolising people and the dangers of that; it is about the dulling effect of time on hopes, dreams and ideals. Which makes it all sound a bit heavy. Ha! It’s actually quite a funny book.
Any message for readers in Pakistan?
I was so pleased people in Pakistan enjoyed Terms & Conditions and I know Please Do Not Disturb is a very different book. But I hope some people enjoy the crazy story of Charlie and the amazing Hotel Mirage. — S.A.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 11th, 2016