After writing for Zig-Zag magazine, playing editor at FHM and, most recently, writing a column for The Sunday Times, self-styled wordsmith Hagen Engler has just released his sixth book, Comrade Baby and other South African Adventures. Presented as a guy’s guide to multi-racial relationships in South Africa, the book is based on Engler’s own experiences. Set episodically, it is a set of reflections that deconstruct the country’s various stereotypes, although philosophy it is not. The entire novel can be summed up in one word – Hagen. It is not a fictional piece, but rather a personal diary that is a reflection of Hagen himself.
When asked what he thinks people will criticise the novel for, Engler replies, “The fact that it is not high-brow enough, but then, that is exactly the point – it’s not literature, but rather a way of democratising the writing process, allowing people to relate to it.”
Engler’s novels are all self-published. He describes the publishing process as one that belongs to a cartel, and in choosing to self-publish, he is able to oppose the monopoly and simultaneously support the independent publishers and bookshops. Certainly Engler’s impatience would have been a factor when considering whether to self-publish or liaise through an agency. Through this route, Engler believes he ensures greater control over his project, feeding his following far faster than if he had chosen to publish the mainstream way.
The book is peppered with slang unique to South Africa, as Hagen endeavours to cross various social and physical barriers; the most obvious one revolves around race. Engler is always conscious of writing from a suburban white male perspective and he does not pretend to be anything else. This refreshingly honest perspective is further enhanced (and satirised) through his multiple proclamations that he is married to a proud, black Xhosa woman. It also gives him that little bit of extra leverage in his survival guide for white men who want to date black women.
And despite the potential pitfalls, he does it well. Somehow, he manages to challenge stereotypes rather than reinforcing them – which, given the subject matter, is no mean feat.
Engler also compares his hometown, Port Elizabeth, to the city of Johannesburg. The comparison includes the different jobs associated with each city, but mostly it is a vehicle for exploring shifting ideologies. Engler’s accounts of the two locations develop with his transformation from childhood to adulthood, with each location holding very different sets of memories. And, linked inextricably to this idea for change, he further explores the tension between external pressures and internal needs and desires – a tension perhaps best described by Engler himself, when he writes: “True freedom lies in being able to do what you want to do. Not what you feel you ought to do, or what you’ve always done, or even what your mates do.”
It is in reading this same line that you can’t help but feel envious of Engler, because as the book progresses, one comes to realise that he is at a point where he does what he wants to do (as much as anyone can). Moreover, much of the narrative describes his travels (both locally and globally): walking, catching buses, taxis and driving a vehicle of his own. All the while, as he travels, he crosses cultural boundaries and deconstructs notions of class, with each experience or interaction moulding him slightly. Engler’s landscape takes on a mystical quality: from vendors to shopping malls, the metropolis is a vehicle for an enviable inner growth.
It’s a good read, full of humour, insights and analysis that is nonetheless not heavy-handed. Engler takes the reader on a journey through his psyche with poetry, memories and epiphanies, all the while interacting meaningfully – and entertainingly – with the society around him. The easy, colloquial flow of his writing and his quirky approach keeps us engaged as he takes on some of the country’s thornier social topics.
Engler’s story is much larger than just his own – it speaks to a generation of readers, encompassing individuals from all streams of society. Most importantly, it represents South Africa as a complex, undefinable beast that brings forth an overwhelming – yet deeply enriching – mishmash of emotions, memories, cultures, races and ages. Comrade Baby captures a series of moments and presents them as something tangible – something worth savouring. DM
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