Paul Theroux, in his disturbing recent Africa-based novel, The Lower River, portrayed gangs of feral children, American aid workers insulated from their supposed beneficiaries by walls of sun-glasses and air-conditioning, and a dystopian society collapsing under the combined weight of failed government and the aids virus. If Theroux’s is an outside-in view of Africa, Zimbabwe-born NoViolet Bulawayo presents an alternative, inside-out view.
We need New Names is the story of Darling, a feisty 10-year-old girl in the dystopia that is Zimbabwe. She happens to herself be a member of a gang of near-feral children; she has herself learned how to manipulate the sun-glassed and air-conditioned aid workers by pushing their guilt-buttons; her own father is obviously dying of AIDS. The book is a fascinating reversal of the gaze: ‘You really don’t get it, Mr Theroux’, it seems to say. ‘This is how it actually is’. It is an authentic, and unsentimental statement, made all the more powerful because it is narrated by a child, without artifice or guile. Darling belongs to a middle-class family driven into a horrific slum called ‘Paradise’ by a vengeful government that brooks no political dissent. She and her gang run wild because their school has shut down, as all the teachers have disappeared. Civilisation appears to have collapsed all around them, except perhaps in the neighbouring district called ‘Budapest’, where the expats live behind high walls and higher security. And yet the grimness of this existence is illuminated with a small, but inextinguishable light of humanity, humour, even joy. The slum children invent exuberant new games to play, despite the fact that they have to steal guavas to ease their constant hunger, and their thin buttocks show through their threadbare clothes. Their parents, meanwhile, go forth idealistically to vote, even as the government bulldozers roll in to flatten their hovels. And that is the beauty of this novel: the way NoViolet Bulawayo presents the indomitability of the human spirit through her mixture of rage and humour, sorrow and tenderness.