When I teach writing, I remind students that real villains aren't like cartoons: They don't cackle, "When my evil plan succeeds, the world will be mine!"
But after reading Peter Godwin's harrowing book, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, I'm not so sure.
Godwin grew up in what had been Rhodesia. He witnessed the war of liberation and Mugabe's rise to power. He saw Zimbabwe flourish — then curdle.
Eventually Godwin left. But three years ago, the nation held supposedly "free and fair" elections. Although Mugabe tried to rig them, he was defeated. Godwin raced home, he writes, "to dance on Robert Mugabe's political grave."
But Mugabe wasn't going anywhere. For weeks, he suppressed election results, then insisted on a runoff between himself and winning opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. While Mugabe stalled, he mobilized militias to unleash a wholesale campaign of torture, imprisonment and death against the opposition party, known as the MDC.
Everyone was targeted. Candidates elected to Parliament. Voting organizers. A couple who painted a pro-MDC sign on the side of their store. Farmers, housewives — even children and babies who simply lived in villages where the MDC won a majority — were tortured and killed. Mugabe launched a scorched earth policy against his own people.
Dubbed "Operation Let Us Finish Them Off," there was nothing covert or nuanced about it.
Instead of writing a political obituary, Godwin found himself keeping a body count in the midst of a "politicide."
"Politicide is the practice of wiping out an entire political movement," he writes. "The murders here are accompanied by torture and rape on an industrial scale, committed on a catch-and-release basis. When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny." The people of Zimbabwe named the campaign simply "The Fear" — hence, Godwin's title.
The Fear is a gut-wrenching portrait of Mugabe's enormous political sadism — and the brave, heartbreaking, nearly superhuman resistance to it.
As a native, Godwin was able to go where few journalists could: to clinics where torture victims were treated. To blood diamond mines. To a party where he ran into Mugabe's personal chaplain and spiritual adviser. To villages, decaying safari parks and some of the few remaining white-owned properties in the country. He traveled with diplomats, visited prisoners, attended subversive arts festivals. In the process, he himself was followed, arrested and once nearly murdered.
In the hands of a less talented writer, The Fear could have become simply too painful to read. But while Godwin spares us nothing, he writes with such compassion, poetry and ironic humor that you cannot put his book down.
Often, he wondered what he was doing in Zimbabwe. Although he finds the phrase "pretentious," he realized he was bearing witness so that peoples' suffering "will not have happened in vain."
We can only hope — but Godwin has done them justice. The Fear is a visceral masterpiece. It's illuminating, infuriating and informative. And its implications extend far beyond Zimbabwe — to the northern end of the continent and beyond, where similar struggles are being waged against other tyrannical dictators.
The Fear is as important a book as we can read right now. It makes each and every one of us witness.
Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.