When animals tell the story
Chatto & Windus
“It’s not an animal farm,” says Dr. Sweet Mother in the first chapter of NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel, a satire titled Glory. The ‘doctor’ is a donkey and the wife of the Old Horse, an avatar of Robert G Mugabe, who led a corrupt Zimbabwean government for 37 years. Given the context, the statement of the donkey must be a reference to George Orwell’s sacred animal farm. Perhaps unintentionally, it should be taken at face value. The 2022 reader is moved by Orwell’s short story from 1945 for his prescience; the 400-page Glory looks back but does not illuminate a new truth. However, it illustrates a dilemma. In the internet age of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin and even post Mugabe Africa – when everyday reality surpasses itself in shock, absurdity and tragedy – how can the novel offer a political satire?
In a letter to his reader, Bulawayo writes that “the allegory [felt] as the perfect technology” to storify the surreal conditions of Mugabe’s end. Glory’s chosen allegory consists of creature figures; there are no humans in the book. A mix of individual stories and an anonymous chorus (sometimes comprised of inevitably diminished Twitter storms) tell the story.
It is set in Jidada, a fictional Zimbabwe, and traces the deposition of the Old Horse, the Father of the Nation, who reigned “longer than the nine lifespans of a hundred cats”. Its vice-president, also on horseback, incites the coup d’etat and becomes the Savior of the Nation. About a third of the novel, Destiny appears. She is a goat and a prodigal daughter of Jidada. She must reconnect with her mother, uncover their war-ravaged ancestry, and bring some much-needed heart to the story. Fate will not continue to rule, she is killed for speaking out against the “new” government, but she elevates the citizens to true rebellion. The ending is both bloody and sweet.
Allegory is intrinsic to the story. That needn’t preclude a novel’s subtlety and precision, something Bulawayo proved in his animated debut, We Need New Names, a coming-of-age tale that effectively depicts postcolonial inequality. In Glory, the use of animals is awkward and distracting rather than demystifying. The book has a lot of structural scaffolding, which obstructs the reader’s emotional connection to the characters. Few writers can craft a phrase like NoViolet Bulawayo, but if a book’s political and artistic intentions don’t reinforce each other, the novel can’t support the premise.