Noviolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, gave her a dream entry into the world of letters. It won several major prizes on both sides of the Atlantic, including the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. So important was the novel, published in 2013, that its title was adopted into popular slang even by those who had not read it. When intimating the necessity of resisting tired mantras and old ways of thinking, for example, one might say: “We need new names.”
For a writer of so much promise and whose footfall resounded in Zimbabwe, where she was born, and in the United States, her new home, her follow-up novel was always bound to be a literary event. It is a measure of her political engagement in the affairs of her homeland that her second novel, Glory, was both inspired by, and pivots on, the November 2017 palace coup in Zimbabwe that toppled veteran despot Robert Mugabe.
Bulawayo notes in the preface that as she wrote Glory, she found herself “constantly coming back to George Orwell’s Animal Farm for its satire of a revolution that ends in betrayal and tyranny”.
Although it was to Animal Farm she kept going back, the form of the allegory Orwell used for his classic novel was one with which Bulawayo was already familiar. Her introduction to stories was at the feet of her grandmother who used to recount “beguiling tales of talking animals and alternate worlds”. In the preface, signalling a departure from the realist novel form she used in her debut, Bulawayo notes: “It was a delight and a privilege to channel that oral tradition in Glory.”
Glory begins at a rally set to be addressed by the “Father of the Nation” of a fictional country called Jidada. It is clearly some kind of animal farm, for everyone in this dictatorship is from the animal kingdom: horses, donkeys, cats, dogs and other animals. The father of the nation, a horse, is clearly based on a late-era Mugabe in his ancient, decrepit state, “older now than the last time they’d seen him, where he’d in fact been older than the last time they’d seen him prior to that”.
The tottering Old Horse is clearly out of it. He asks his wife: “What is this place? Who are all these animals?” At hand to explain is the Old Horse’s wife, Marvellous, a character based on Mugabe’s once powerful wife Grace: “Ah-ah, but what kind of question is that, Your Excellency?!”
Also present at the rally are recognisable characters and bodies from that period, including the vice-president Tuvius Delight Shasha, based on President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the Jidada army – “dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs” – used by the Old Horse and later Shasha to maintain a grip on the levers of power. Not long afterward, Shasha, with the help of a general, topples the Old Horse.
Even though the action of the novel revolves around this, at the centre of the book is Destiny, a goat who has come back after a decade in exile in the US. The impetus of her return home is the promise of the “new dispensation” mantra of the new ruler, Shasha.
When she gets home, the gate to her mother’s house is locked, but a neighbour is at hand to welcome her. She learns that her mother – her brain torn apart by multiple griefs, including Destiny’s disappearance – wandered off into the maze of the township and has not been seen since. As Destiny’s gets used to the strange rhythms of life in her native land, she realises the hollowness of “the new dispensation”.
Destiny soon finds out that this supposedly new era is not even new wine in old wineskins. It is just foetid old wine in frayed old wineskins. “This country! This country!” – an iteration of a plaint that has passed from the mouth of just about every Zimbabwean at one point or the other – crosses Destiny’s mind at some point too. It is a plaint that, on some occasions, also passed through the mouth of the Old Horse.
One day, after his removal from power, the Old Horse takes a “legacy tour” of the country he used to rule, and he can’t quite believe the extent of the ruins over which he presided. The schools are in a frightful state and the cities are overrun by vendors and black-market money changers with university degrees. “But when did things get like this?” the Old Horse asks in shock.
The southwestern provinces of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe are an active crime scene and, to Bulawayo’s credit, Glory heaves with the trauma that took place in that part of the country. The killings from 1983 until 1987, in which tens of thousands of Ndebeles were murdered by Mugabe’s shock troops, are central to the plot of the book. “Bulawayo [Zimbabwe’s second city]… what a dark, dark, name. Meaning, where one gets killed, where there is killing,” reads a line from the book.
And in Glory, the blood of those killed during that time refuses to clot until justice is done.
An insufficient allegory
Yet the novel does not quite work as an allegory. The crux of its problems is suggested in its preface anyway. Glory began as a work of non-fiction before it morphed into its current form. “Animals helped me move beyond the specific, allowing me to do what non-fiction wouldn’t,” Bulawayo writes. Non-fiction can present practical problems, especially around research issues, rebuffed interview requests and information gaps. But could it be that Bulawayo ran into a cul-de-sac and then sought refuge in allegory?
The novel’s two-headed nature is in its fictionalised place names and characters that exist alongside the real (like the 19th-century medium and nationalist icon Mbuya Nehanda, a hospital named after Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Mugabe, China, the US, Berlin, Bulawayo and many more).
Animals in Glory are given arbitrary categories that do not conform with our everyday perceptions or how we have received them from oral traditions. The world of Animal Farm, for instance, is clearly delineated: the pigs are the rulers, the horses are the workers, the donkey Benjamin is a thinker, the raven Moses is a telltale, and the dogs are the enforcers. In Glory, apart from the dogs, most of the animals’ roles and characterisation appear whimsical. For example, why is Marvellous, the Old Horse’s wife, a donkey?
Bulawayo could have made use of the existing categories in Ndebele, Shona and even Akan (Ghana) traditions in which the alternate world of allegory and fable operates according to a recognisable logic: the hare is the clever trickster (in Akan traditions, this role is played by the spider), the baboon is stupid, the tortoise is wise and forbearing, and the lion is king of the jungle.
Part of the unwieldiness of Glory stems from Bulawayo foisting human concepts, mannerisms and tropes on the animal world. For instance, we read that the reason why Destiny’s mother did not get along with her own mother had to do with her getting pregnant at an early age. This, then, showed to the world that Destiny’s grandmother was a “failure of a mother”. Yet we know animals don’t get pregnant “at an early age”; they get pregnant when they are ready to carry offspring.
The concept of race – white and black animals – does not apply in the animal kingdom. The novel’s lack of clarity, even confusion, on that score is evident in that it has “black Jidadans”, Ndebelemals (abridgement of Ndebele animals) and Shonamals (Shona animals) – a problematic taxonomy on a continent in which racist white people called Africans animals. Even the “late Ndebele leader, Father Jidada”, is mentioned in passing. (This sobriquet clearly applies to founding nationalist Joshua Nkomo, who came to be known as Father Zimbabwe because of his pioneering role in Zimbabwean nationalism.) When we have been working with realistic domestic animals, suddenly we have to contend with invented species such as Shonamals and Ndebelemals.
At the heart of the problems of Glory is that Bulawayo’s characters and story were conceived in one form and then clumsily transferred to another. The result is that Glory’s parts – allegory, polemic and history – are not adequately resolved. But even in that case, the story is still at times a moving, often vivid, account of the troubles of the nation of Jidada.