Chatto & Windus
REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano
Penned under her unusual pseudonym, Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Tshele has turned “Hitting Budapest’’, her award-winning short story which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, into a ferocious, hard hitting debut novel laced with bitter gallows humour. It’s a cautionary tale, which made me quite literally flinch on occasion. Prospective readers should prepare themselves for the emotional equivalents of jabbing upper cuts and the occasional well-aimed gut punch to the solar plexus, as We Need New Names conjures a nightmarish vision of life in a corrupt, and politically and socially unstable African nation.
Does this get a bit much sometimes? Yes, it can. Does Bulawayo sometimes come dangerously close to creating yet another ‘trauma junkie’ portrayal of Africa? To a degree. But luckily she succeeds in balancing her often macabre vision with wonderfully irreverent passages and wry social commentary which lifts her book beyond the merely sensationalistic. Since the second half of her book is set in the United States, the juxtaposition of two very different worlds also puts a refreshingly different spin on things and creates a more nuanced end product.
The first half of We Need New Names has strong elements of a dystopian, surrealist modern day fable. The novel tells the coming of age story of Darling (also our first person narrator) who, when we meet her, is a street savvy, jaded nine-year-old girl living in an unnamed African country. (Readers will soon enough pick up that this is contemporary Zimbabwe.)
Darling is part of a marauding band of brutalised street children living in a derelict shanty town on the edge of the capital, the ironically named, ‘Paradise’. Their suburban homes have long ago been bulldozed by the overzealous Mugabe government, their schools have been closed and their teachers retrenched, their parents are out struggling to make ends meet. They are desensitised and feral and spend their days trawling more affluent suburbs stealing fruit and ferreting for booty, or engage in bizarre role playing and games most of which seem to bear some element of crassness or viciousness. They steal the shoes of a suicide victim for bread money. They pretend to be a band of presidential supporters beating an opposition party member to death. Bastard, their gang’s self anointed leader, is an unmitigated bully – a Mugabe enforcer of the future. These kids wear American College T-shirts donated by aid workers and expediently pander to the clicking cameras of do-gooders and pressmen in the hopes of handouts. Their daily activities and attitudes are there to offer readers a horrifying reflection of the spiritual and moral erosion of their society.
Bulawayo highlights mob brutality, the scourge of Aids, child molestation, the lightweight impact of international aid and other issues as she weaves her absorbing tale. It’s all rather menacing and creepy and depressing yes – but the strange fact is, these kids are also having fun, being creative and making the most of bleak circumstances. They haven’t lost their sense of vitality, no matter how tough life may be. So while Bulawayo’s weakness as first time novelist may be her urge to overdo ‘the horror, the horror’ (she can be heavy handed with the litany of woes), her child narrator’s delightful candour (used to great ironic effect), her lively prose which brims over with verve, and her insightful juxtaposition of Darling’s early life set against her later coming of age in the United States, justify her inclusion on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. The novel’s unpunctuated dialogue, however, can make for tricky reading. While it adds to the narrative’s surrealist edge, I would have been glad of quotation marks to distinguish spoken words in the text.
In the novel’s second half, Bulawayo cannily describes Darling’s adolescence as part of an illegal immigrant family headed by her Aunt Fostalina and Fostalina’s Ghanaian partner. While the author continues to blend bleakness with humour in this part of the story, as Darling’s skewed immersion into the false promise of the great, ephemeral ‘American Dream’ is described, the satire is gentler and in many ways far more effective. The author, who like her protagonist immigrated to the States as pre-teen, has great fun cocking a snoot at Middle American mall culture. Hankering for home, Darling changes her accent, goes shopping with friends, watches internet porn, takes on demeaning part time jobs and finds herself (along with fellow émigrés) inhabiting a conflicted state of economic and cultural limbo.
Bulawayo’s dense prose is layered with meaning. For every observation Darling makes, whether it be about a bogus lay preacher plying his salvation trade in a Harare ghetto, or about her Americanised aunt’s obsession with diets and Victoria’s Secret lingerie, there is much incisive social commentary in this unusual and thought provoking text.