NoViolet Bulawayo burst on to the literary scene in 2013 with We Need New Names, whose exploration of the harshness of life in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the immigrant experience won its author a place on that year’s Booker Prize shortlist.
In her second novel, set in a thinly veiled Zimbabwe named “Jidada with a -da and another -da” populated solely by animals, Bulawayo broaches what it means to fight for democracy and call somewhere home in a timely and imaginative way.
Glory opens with Old Horse, “so frail . . . the slightest breath of breeze would send him teetering”, praising “the[se] days of glory” at a political rally. Surrounded by supporters and his cabinet, including “the Minister of Order, the Minister of Things [and] the Minister of Nothing”, Jidada’s garrulous president-for-life and his wife — whose dubiously earned PhD is common knowledge — give speeches implying that she is preparing to succeed him.
Old Horse’s deputy, Tuvius Delight Shasha, known as Tuvy, has other ideas. He goes into exile but soon after, with military assistance, stages a coup, vowing to “make Jidada great again”. But that claim proves hollow: after Jidadans savour a brief taste of freedom, Tuvy wins a sham vote and sets about enriching his clique and stifling dissent.
As Jidada’s new leader enforces an ever more absurd cult of personality at home while schmoozing the west, the author deploys a diverse cast of ordinary citizens to map how individual lives have been stunted by the ruling party. She also sets in motion a sub-plot that assumes greater importance as the novel reaches its climax.
Destiny, a goat, has returned home after many years abroad to reconcile with her mother Simiso, who is haunted by an act of state-sanctioned violence. It is Destiny, as befits her name, who galvanises opposition to Tuvy’s kleptocracy — though in one of the novel’s most moving passages, she is robbed of the chance to see Jidada finally free.
Social media, dubbed “the Other Country”, offers the curious and the critical a refuge from the real world before censors arrive. At intervals, Bulawayo captures the buzz and occasional bitterness of online exchanges and, in a kind of literary vox pop, briefly enters unnamed characters’ heads, revealing a mixture of hope, apathy and anger at the fate of their homeland.
In a note to readers, the author says she found herself “constantly coming back to George Orwell’s Animal Farm for its satire of a revolution that ends in betrayal and tyranny” while writing. Her debt to that novel is evinced not only by her substitution of animals for humans, but by her insistence on the power of language as some seek to ascribe new meanings to old words out of self-interest.
Thrumming to the refrain of “tholukuthi” — a term that repeatedly begins sentences and sub-chapters and which translates as “indeed”, “and so” and “in truth” — Glory is a memorable, funny and yet serious allegory about a country’s plight under tyranny and what individual and collective freedom means in an age of virtual worlds and political soundbites.
Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo, Vintage £18.99, 416 pages
Franklin Nelson is the FT’s Maisie Hylton Fellow. The fellowship was established in memory of the FT’s Maisie Hylton in order to promote greater diversity at the FT
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