First as tragedy, second as farce

NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel 'Glory' forcefully evokes the Zimbabwean political landscape but struggles to stretch itself beyond the documentarian, vacillating between the journalistic and fictive.

Robert Mugabe at the 12th AU Summit in Addis Ababa, 2009. Public domain image, credit Jesse B. Awalt (US Navy).

Set in a fictional African nation named Jidada, NoViolet Bulawayo’s much-anticipated second novel Glory sits uncomfortably between two classic African genres: the political novel and the fable. Told in the voice of a village chorus, the novel uses the ancient form of the animal fable to tell the story of a people rendered immobile at the edge of a precipice. Jidada’s long-serving dictator Old Horse is deposed in a sanitized coup orchestrated by his recently ousted vice president. The citizens of Jidada are exalted albeit disappointed that it was not them who stormed the House of Power like “an unstoppable hurricane” as they had always dreamed. But their joy is short lived when it becomes clear that the new “Savior of the Nation” is equally determined to treat Jidada as his own personal private property.

Karl Marx famously remarked that history repeats twice, “first as tragedy, second as farce.” Bulawayo’s second novel dwells on the tragicomic labor to survive the farce. The legacy of the anticolonial revolution and the promise of independence become free-floating signifiers, almost like an inside joke capable of no more than rousing a crowd and covering up coups.

Zimbabwe’s recent political turbulence is a clear touchstone for Bulawayo. But Jidada is more broadly a fable for a captured continent—a sense of “it happens here but also there and everywhere.” The capaciousness of this fable induces an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, a feeling that not only has she lived in Jidada but that she has read this novel many times before.

In the opening pages of Glory, Jidadans celebrate their Independence Day. They endure hours under the ferocious heat with empty stomachs waiting for the man who has ruled them since independence, “the longest serving leader in a continent of long-serving leaders,” to address them. The Father of the Nation, frail and confused, commemorates the occasion by confessing that last week he had once again died. But not to worry, he says, “I have indeed died many times. That’s where I have beaten Christ.” Unlike Jesus Christ, the Father of the Nation promises to die and be resurrected many more times, outliving every single Jidadan.

If this sounds familiar, it might be because you live in Angola or Equatorial Guinea or Cameroon or Uganda. Or, it could be because you read Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here, or Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote or Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow whose opening pages also chronicle the lavish national birthday of the aging ailing long-ruling Father of the Nation. Like Jidadans, the citizens of Aburīria, the fictional country that Wizard of the Crow is set in, struggle to imagine a different world order. When they hear of leaders who might have preceded the Father of the Nation, they “simply shake their heads in disbelief saying, no, no, those are just the tales of a daydreamer: Aburīria had never and could never have another ruler, because had not this man’s reign begun before the world began and would only end only after the world has ended?” That is to say that for the last half a century or so Africans have faced an immovable present and a future that is tentative at best as the men who campaigned on freedom and liberation turned into professional killers and life-long autocrats. And for the last half a century or so, the African political novel has, in turn, sought to document, distill, and dissent against state capture.

In Bulawayo’s novel, the writer holds a privileged position. Everyday millions of Jidadans depart the physical Country-Country for the virtual Other Country where they document, distill, and rebel against the unbearable brutality of the physical country. But the writer is also in a race against history. One of the central characters of the novel is Destiny, a young goat who returns to her hometown Bulawayo after a period of self-imposed political exile to reconnect with her estranged mother. By studying each other’s bodies marred by state violence that mother can finally speak about the past, which is also the present, to her daughter. Destiny learns about the Gukurahundi, the state-sponsored genocide that in the 1980s claimed the majority of her extended family. She also learns that before his execution, her grandfather was working on a memoir chronicling his involvement in the liberation struggles. He feared that if he did not write, Jidada’s anticolonial legacy might be instrumentalized by the new ruling class and he might “wake up one day to find [himself] in the belly of a crocodile that calls itself History.” Two generations later, it would fall on Destiny to finish what her grandfather had started, to write the story of her family, which is also the story of Jidada and that of Africa.

But what happens to the novel form when the distance between past, present, and future have been violently obliterated? In Glory the political novel struggles to stretch itself beyond the documentarian, vacillating between the journalistic and fictive. For instance, the novel tries to reconcile the fable form and the norms of social media to illustrate how Jidadans carve out an alternative public space that enables them to engage in politics censored in the physical. Instead, the gimmick of inserting pages and pages of Twitter exchanges sieved with pithy hashtags and indignant slogans into the novel underscores how the virtual at once proliferates and deflates the regimes of political discourse.

The tensions between the demands of the story and the constraints of the novelistic form are most acutely felt in the unsteadiness of its register. Not infrequently Glory abruptly abandons its chosen satirical register for a more somber almost melodramatic tenor as if unable to keep the laughter going, as if it were morphine wearing off. There is a limit to appreciating the absurd in the daily humiliation of poverty and oppression, in having to call one’s dictator “Father” for the people are first children, second subjects, and never citizens. But what happens when one’s history can only take the form of a satire? Or worse an allegory? This is the intervention the delayed introduction of Destiny’s character makes in the novel; she brings the laughter to a halt as she embodies what cannot be assimilated into the regimes of figuration.

And yet, there is no getting away from the absurd. Shortly after the novel recounts the history of the Gukurahundi genocide, we meet the new president on his way to Davos, the world’s most powerful economic forum to beg the gatekeepers of international wealth to lift the crippling sanctions and invest in Jidada. On his mind, however, is a more pressing matter: his artificial digital assistant. “Yeyi Siri,” he says to his phone, “what do you actually exactly look like?” This question, it turns out, has kept the new old leader awake ever since his inauguration day. Every night he goes to sleep fantasizing about Siri, “the shape of her face. Her smile. The color of her eyes. Her gait. The rhythm of her breathing. Her smell.” How can you not laugh? How can you laugh?

The novel’s clunky oscillation between fable, satire, tragedy, and melodrama is symptomatic of what it means to endure buffoonery’s brutality in the postcolony. But the question remains: should we expect more than a symptomatic representation from the form or has the African political novel simply run out of steam?

For Western critics and literary tastemakers, however, such a question is beside the point. For instance, despite being a finalist for the 2022 Booker Prize there has been virtually no serious critical engagement with Glory. Instead, most reviews have, predictably and regrettably, treated the novel as an extension of the news hour, a two-dimensional mimesis for an all too predictable continent. There has been no discernable appreciation or desire to read Glory not only in relation to certain historical forces, but also the literary traditions to which they gave rise. Almost every review of the novel, for example, has cataloged Bulawayo’s use of the animal fable as a clever homage to George Orwell’s Animal Farm rather than rooted in ancient local orature traditions. It is as if every African novel appears on the global stage eager and alone waiting to be graded on how well it has played the imitation game.

Glory is a fierce, furious novel and even when it wavers or concedes to the Western gaze, the reader is always aware that at stake is not only the future of the political novel but the very soul of a continent.

Further Reading