Nine years ago, NoViolet Bulawayo published her debut novel We Need New Names. This coming-of-age tale, which grew from her Caine prize-winning short story Hitting Budapest, features 10-year-old Darling and friends struggling to survive in a Zimbabwean shantytown. They do so with extraordinary resilience and humour; a thread that runs powerfully through her second novel, Glory.
We Need New Names was widely acclaimed as a powerful story of displacement written in distinctive and poetic prose, and made Bulawayo the first Black African woman to be shortlisted for the Booker prize. The language in Glory is just as spellbinding, with added stylistic dexterity.
Inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Glory is set in the animal kingdom of Jidada. After a 40-year rule, the “Old Horse” is ousted in a coup, along with his much-despised wife, a donkey named Marvellous. At first there is great rejoicing and hope for change under a new ruling horse, Tuvius Delight Shasha (the former vice-president turned rival of Old Horse). Hope, however, quickly vanishes and into the period of post-coup despair steps a young goat named Destiny, who returns from exile to bear witness to a land where greed, corruption and false prophets are rampant. Elements of this story will sound familiar. In a note to the reader, Bulawayo explains that she attempted to write about Zimbabwe’s November 2017 coup and the fall of Robert Mugabe in nonfiction, but found a better form in political satire.
As with We Need New Names, Bulawayo leans into exaggeration and irony to tell hard truths. Glory is jam-packed with comedy and farce, poking fun at an autocratic regime while illustrating the absurdity and surreal nature of a police state. Here, for example, is an extravagant, ironic list of Jidada’s government ministers reflecting the breadth and depth of corruption: “The Minister of the Revolution, the Minister of Corruption, the Minister of Order, the Minister of Things, the Minister of Nothing, the Minister of Propaganda, the Minister of Homophobic Affairs, the Minister of Disinformation, the Minister of Looting”. While in the chapter Queuenation, the human stance of animals waiting to buy scarce commodities brings a double comedy: “Standing on hind legs, the back leaning against a wall, tail curled or tucked between the legs. Sitting on the pavement. Squatting. Holding on to walls. Sleeping queues. Sleeping pressed together like hot loaves of bread in queues. Sleeping standing with one eye open in queues.”
There is much that is familiar from Zimbabwe’s post-coup history, from the popular slogans meaning the opposite of what is stated – “Open for business” and “New dispensation” – down to characters and events. Marvellous the donkey, “Dr Sweet Mother” with her “Gucci heels”, represents the former first lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Ntombizodwa Mugabe, who was awarded her PhD after just three months – or, as the novel has it, “before you could say diss, for dissertation”. Also familiar is the misogynistic scapegoating of the first lady as the reason for the Old Horse losing his marbles.
But one doesn’t have to know Zimbabwe to relish this novel. As with all good satire, the specific speaks to the universal; and many of these specifics are instantly recognisable – a video recording anguished cries of “I can’t breathe”; the sham commitment to “free, fair and credible elections”; the calls to “make Jidada great again”. Similarly, the heart-breaking descriptions of genocide, corrupt rulers and their cronies, and a traumatised nation living in fear, will chime with people all over the world. Glory is in good company with Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s 2021 biting critique of Nigerian society, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a new wave of political satire from African writers.
Glory is also a fresh and modern take on our relationship to the virtual world and to the novel form itself. In Jidada there are two countries: “the Country Country that was the real physical space in which Jidadans walked and lived and queued and suffered and got pained, and then there was the Other Country, where Jidadans logged on and roared and raged and vented”. This Other Country is captured not only in hilarious hashtagging and tweets, but with soundbites from animals weighing in on current events. This social media-saturated narrative, interwoven with the oral storytelling techniques of idiomatic speech and call and response, makes Bulawayo feel like a pioneer. Even the stylistic use of the refrain “Tholukuthi”, meaning “only to discover” (as in, “you thought you were getting a novel as good as We Need New Names, tholukuthi Bulawayo’s second is even more dazzling”), nods to a social media moment. Around the time of the Zimbabwe coup, the song Tholukuthi Hey! was released, and once it went viral, the refrain became a meme. “Tholukuthi” serves both as incantation and a form of punctuation in a novel that will appeal across generations.
Bulawayo doesn’t hold back in speaking truth to power. She writes urgently and courageously, holding up a mirror both to contemporary Zimbabwe and the world at large. Her fearless and innovative chronicling of politically repressive times calls to mind other great storytellers such as Herta Müller, Elif Shafak and Zimbabwean compatriot Yvonne Vera. Glory, with a flicker of hope at its end, is allegory, satire and fairytale rolled into one mighty punch.