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Chasing out the old horse

NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel focuses on a dictatorship in fictional African nation

Dave Cutler for The Boston Globe

Dictators who “rule and rule and keep ruling,” are equitably distributed. Jinping (10 years), Erdoğan (19), Lukashenko and Assad (22), Mussolini and Putin (23), and Mbasogo (43) put paid to the notion that dictatorships are the province of people of a certain hue. NoViolet Bulawayo’s brilliant novel, “Glory,” writes into this reality, and how.

Inspired by Robert Mugabe’s decades-long rule over Zimbabwe, “Glory” enfolds a coup orchestrated not by the people of a “government-forsaken” nation, but by military dogs trained in North Korea. Indeed the entire cast is composed of animals. The deposed and sitting presidents are old horses; the former first lady, a donkey; there are “drifts of pigs,” and an ex-revolutionary hen. Children are kittens terrorized by a crocodile, a reference to Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, known by the Shona word for crocodile, Ngwena.


By locating her story in a fictional country called “Jidada, with a -da and another -da!” but drawing from verifiable events — including first lady Grace Mugabe’s fake doctorate — Bulawayo trains our eye on the verities of affliction under any repressive regime, while simultaneously highlighting the misery undergone by the people of Zimbabwe, particularly the Ndebele. It is a perilous balancing act and she makes no missteps. If the Ndebele and their sympathizers were annihilated in a climate where “even the little babies, even the grandmothers,” are murdered for “dissident tendencies,” under the aegis of a macabre pogrom known as the Gukurahundi genocide (Shona for “early rain that rids the earth of chaff”), we see it in light of other assaults from Palestine to Ukraine.

How to write about genocide with wit? Bulawayo excels. There is a Minister of Violence, and A Minister of Things, and Top Chef for the national Electoral Cookhouse. Canine generals named Elegy, Precious, and Blessing, and the preacher, O.G. Moses, are poised to “go all Defender” on the populace, led by a man lauded for his “unbridled display of violence, passion, ferocity, imbecility, and unreasonableness all at once.” The new president, Tuvius (Tuvi) Delight Shasha’s visage adorns everything, attaining greatest potency when worn on the bodies of shimmying “femals,” a clever twofer that unifies human and animal. In the fantastic world of “Glory,” Siri — whom Tuvi imagines is a woman in his thrall — addresses him by all his monikers, including “Dispenser of New Dispensations,” and “Main Chief Appointer.” A Chinese delegate announces his appreciation of “a win-win situation for us because we win, and we again win,” and assures they never meddle in politics, for, “unlike the West, we are your respectful friends who mind our business and our business is mining business!” To circumvent clownish Western governments, the Minister of Business advises Tuvi, “Whatever they say, just say yes to it, all of it ... these are things that give Westerners orgasms.”


Is Bulawayo sharpening the same knife she used before? The title of her first novel, “We Need New Names,” slips into “Glory,” and characters from that debut make cameo appearances. Is it Darling, accused of abandoning her homeland, who returns now as a fighter? It does not matter. “Glory” is both rooted in the old and entirely new, including as it revives Orwell’s satire about the Russian revolution. If “Animal Farmconjured not least because Bulawayo mentions it, twice — served as inspiration to write of similarly pernicious beginnings and demoniac ends, Bulawayo’s version makes the warning contemporary. Jidadans (we), rise up, are quelled by violence, and divided through inconsequential rewards. Jidadans (we) acquiesce to those who claim to serve our interests while demonstrating that our trust will be royally betrayed.


Throughout, Bulawayo offers elegant, universally relevant, vignettes. We hear ourselves in twitter feeds, in monologues ranging from bitterness to complacency after elections favor the armed, in self-absolving justifications exchanged while waiting in queues. In Jidada, we hear the ring of #withusoragainstus doctrines where everyone, artist, or medic, if not colluding in upholding power, is an enemy. The powerful are revered because they are, as Tuvi puts it, the constitution and the Seat of Power, voters and the electoral commission, roads and the potholes in those roads, they are, in fact, “every [expletive] thing you can think of, tholukuthi everything!”

“Tholukuthi,” which rings like a refrain, exists in the valence between shock and excitement. Allowing a foreign language, its rhythms and sinew, to dominate English prose such that nothing is lost and much is gained, has long been abandoned by writers concerned with the lesser matter of italics. Bulawayo seizes the bull, why not, by the horns, and cannot be thrown off. Her prose is fertile. Virility and muliebrity sit astride the same saddle and the book reads like a best friend recounting outrageous behaviors and practices in the same “fire fire” gear that powers the oppressor. “Those who know” are only surpassed by “those who really really know,” “sticks and stones” contain ancestral wisdom, tears achieve eloquence, and, repeatedly, the Ndebele language delights the tongue.


“Glory” demonstrates what it is impossible to teach: there are no rules. Everything, even inconsistency, serves story. NoViolet Bulawayo joins writers like Ursula K Le Guin, Mohsin Hamid, and Colum McCann to revolutionize the possibilities of fiction. “Glory” will give writers permission to break free from rigid etiquette and use the storytelling habits of the world, and the concerns of that world as their mise en scène. For that alone Bulawayo deserves all the available accolades.


By NoViolet Bulawayo

Viking, 416 pages, $27

Ru Freeman is the author of “A Disobedient Girl” and “On Sal Mal Lane” and editor of the anthology “Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine.”