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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

NoViolet Bulawayo Allegorizes the Aftermath of Robert Mugabe

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By NoViolet Bulawayo

Early on in NoViolet Bulawayo’s manifoldly clever new novel, “Glory,” she completely removes the vocabulary of “people” from the story and the language of its characters, who are all animals. The book is set in Jidada, a fictional African country that can be understood as a sort of fantasia of Zimbabwe in the period between the 2017 military overthrow of its president, Robert Mugabe, and his death two years later. It is a brilliant, 400-page postcolonial fable charting the downfall of one tyrant — whose counterpart here is an elderly horse — and the rise of a new one.

The other inhabitants of Jidada are pigs and cows, goats and sheep, cats and dogs, chickens and the odd peacock. There is a very large and symbol-laden crocodile who recalls the real-life nicknames given to Mugabe’s human replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and also to the South African prime minister P. W. Botha, a supporter of apartheid. There are no men or women in “Glory”; there is no personhood at all, only “mals” and “femals.” Things that are kept private are “persomal” matters. Quadrupedal animals switch freely between moving on four legs and two, and when they opt for the latter it is termed “hinding.” This is an allegory that operates entirely on its own terms, with its own ingenious lexicon. By taking humans out of the equation, Bulawayo eliminates the hierarchies that their presence would impose. She has succeeded in creating the anti-“Babar.”

And while there are certainly parallels between the creatures of Jidada and Orwell’s chronicles of Snowball, Napoleon, Boxer and company, in the very first chapter “Glory” cautions against interpreting the book solely through comparisons to “Animal Farm.” During a speech delivered to the crowd gathered for Independence Day celebrations, Dr. Sweet Mother, a donkey in Gucci heels and the equine equivalent of the ousted leader’s wife, Grace Mugabe, announces:

“I’m standing here to address this nonsense right here right now, with Jidada itself and this sun over there as my witnesses, and I’m saying: This is not an animal farm but Jidada with a -da and another -da! So my advice to you is, Stop it, and Stop it right now!”

Though part of a litany aimed at Tuvy, her political rival, Dr. Sweet Mother’s words are too explicit not to be a warning for the reader. Here and again, when Dr. Sweet Mother gleefully watches the YouTube video of her own speech, we hear it straight from the donkey’s mouth: This is not “Animal Farm.” Not its remix, nor its translation. “Glory” is its own vivid world, drawn from its own folklore.

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