“Disco Dave is a South African hipster on the Port Elizabeth social scene, such as it is. His dreams of media moguldom evaporate before his eyes as the scene becomes blacker and his understanding of it more tenuous. Hard-up for bucks, he moves into the Maid’s Room on his property and rents out the main house. Sizwe arrives and swiftly sets about taking over Disco’s life. He impregnates his ex-girlfriend Jazz, founds a rival media company and slides into a job Disco had his eye on. The blacks are taking over! Disco finds a black girlfriend, but even that doesn’t stop it. Desperate for relevance, he has to get famous somehow. But who even needs white celebs anymore? While his fellow non-blacks embrace wilful ignorance, hippy oblivion and gangsterism, Disco knows just enough to know he doesn’t know enough. As South Africa finally becomes a black country, he finds himself asking, what about me?”
So that’s the blurb at the back of Hagen Engler’s third novel. His previous books include Stuff (South African) White People Like as well as Marrying Black Girls For Guys Who Aren’t Black. Engler’s third novel is a glimpse into what is presumably the lives of white people in the then Port Elizabeth and the new Nelson Mandela Bay. Of course the story will resonate with most South Africans. Although his protagonist, Disco Dave, is an exhausting old, insecure, typical white guy with entitlement issues, he’s equally entertaining and makes it a pleasure following his pointless pathetic life around. Desperate to be famous, Disco Dave will stop at nothing to see himself on TV. From auditioning for the most ridiculous reality TV shows in PE to name dropping big names as if he’s met them before in his newspaper editing career, he really thinks he is the talk of town. The problem though is that he is not. Even his friends see him as a joke. He’s not performing that well at work. So no one takes him seriously even on that front.
The book might be difficult to get into for some readers because of the style Engler has adopted in genuinely representing his characters with their profane, raw and blasphemous street lingo.
Described as a scruffy shamble of an episodic novel, the book becomes almost plotless due to endless and unnecessary scenes which might have easily been edited out to give the book a more decent structure. At times readers will skip pages because, Okay, I get the point, no need to repeat the same point for two to three pages. But then again, maybe the book is not meant to be decent. Whatever that means!
There is no doubt that the biggest lessons to be taken away from the book are right at the end where Engler uses his various characters to answer Disco Dave and other whites in South Africa, in 2016, when they ask “What about me? What about us? Do we still have a place in this country?” These questions are answered by Disco Dave’s “new black girlfriend” and his colleague Sizwe who, upon learning that he cannot afford his house anymore, takes over the house and bond and moves Disco Dave to the backroom. While the girlfriend says she will not settle down for him, his days are over, he’s lived his fair share of life; Sizwe tells him the country is not white anymore.
In The Maid’s Room is definitely worth a try especially if you’re from PE; and after such a terrible year we’ve all had as a collective, everybody needs to summon back to life their sense of humour and get this book for Dizemba Holidays. I tune you.
In The Maid’s Room is published by Jacana.
About the Author
Hagen Engler has co-written, ghost-written and edited more than ten books. In the Maid’s Room is his third novel. He is the former editor of a doomed consumer magazine, a white guy from PE and no longer the big deal he used to be. So you see now.
By Siyamthanda Skota