Please Do Not Disturb by Robert Glancy - book review

by Paul Ewen / 01 August, 2016
Tale of power and corruption is observant and entertaining.
Robert Glancy: wonderfully descriptive passages. Photo/Jody Lidstone
Robert Glancy: wonderfully descriptive passages. Photo/Jody Lidstone

Auckland-based Robert Glancy was raised in Malawi, now famous “as the place where Madonna finds her children”. Perhaps this point helped inspire his second novel, Please Do Not Disturb, where the self-serving motivations of dictators are paralleled with the modern PR machine: “Dictators and pop stars are all in the same business. The business of distraction. Show business.”

In the African nation of Bwalo, the annual Big Day celebration is an occasion for dictators and celebrities alike to push their agendas. Truth, a young American pop star, is flown in at the request of Tafumo, the ruling dictator. His presence is designed to deflect attention from the real state of affairs: corruption, mounting debts and mass poverty. A previous Big Day monument, an abandoned Roman amphitheatre, is depicted with its “rings of seating plunging into the earth like a ribcage”, as if it were a once powerful animal, now starved and left for dead.

For Truth and his entourage, the Big Day is a chance to generate some publicity, highlight Truth’s distant African roots and demonstrate that “he cares”. Free copies of his CDs are duly distributed, despite the fact that the recipients have no access to music players or even electricity.

The book is narrated through a series of different voices, representing insiders of the regime, expatriates, poor whites and Charlie, raised in Africa, the young son of Scottish parents who manage the well-to-do Mirage Hotel. Bwalo, we discover, is a mirage in itself, a nation of facades, where high-level ministers, dissenting voices or those who constitute a threat to the established order, are there one minute and gone the next.

Apart from a brief and muddled attempt at a speech, Tafumo is denied a voice in the book. He is set up as a withering old man in decline, yet remains undeniably powerful. His character can be likened to that of a hippo: supposedly slow and harmless, yet “killing more people than any other animal in Africa”.

Josef and Hope, two narrators both closely linked to the regime, are particularly well-drawn characters. Others, such as Irish expat Sean, are less convincing: his dialogue with Bel, Truth’s publicist, feels rather strained. Both Sean and Charlie’s narrations add a welcome lightness of tone, but the humour in each seems somewhat stifled.

That aside, the overall narrative is consistently engaging, and the environment is vividly portrayed. Glancy’s observant eye and obvious affection for the African setting make for some wonderfully descriptive passages. The Ministry of Communication is housed “in a grey block of a building, like a Rubik’s Cube, peeled of its colours”. Flickering smoke-threads from scrub fires “sewed the earth to the sky”. And when a bull is felled, we are drawn to the partly digested grass inside its stomach.

Please Do Not Disturb is an entertaining yet sombre reminder of our complacency over state control, the erosion of personal rights and the intrusive, one-sided spin of media figures. It is a thought-provoking, timely and important book.

PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB, by Robert Glancy (Bloomsbury, $29.99)

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