Tendai Huchu announced his arrival on the literary scene with his novel The Hairdresser Of Harare, in his second offering, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician he follows the precedent he set in his Caine Prize shortlisted story The Intervention by setting it in the diaspora.
The setting is Scotland, Edinburgh; the plot revolves around the lives of three Zimbabwean expatriates so often marred in anguish. The Maestro is a fag blowing, ganja smoking degenerate who withdraws from the world into a monkish life as bibliophile asking age-old questions like the meaning of life. The Magistrate is an audiophile who maps the city of Edinburg through music. His is a melancholic life, that of a man who was worth something once upon a time in the country he left and now has to stoop low into a life of menial labour and housework. As though the perceived emasculation is not enough, his wife despises his cooking and the intimacy in their marriage withers. The Mathematician is a mid-twenties mathematical genius and ruthless pragmatist who laments not investing in Raytheon stock before Bush and Blair went war mongering in the Middle East. He is in pursuit of a PHD whose thesis explores profiteering in hyper inflationary economies which turns out to be a dangerous course.
The Magistrate is a relic of the past burdened by a sense of purpose and worth though the system he is plunged into does not recognise his past. He harbours a burning nostalgia of one trapped away from the home he yearns even after death. The book is itself a cultural experience: a tour of Edinburg’s soul: her streets, and landmarks which he maps with music through his Walkman. He is cleverly juxtaposed with the comical Alfonso, who appears to be the fool of the novel. The Magistrate could represent the first generation expatriates who believe they are only abroad for a while, until things shape up. He finely juxtaposes the detached way of the West with the more intimate and mutli-layered African, particularly Shona. Through him we see the ludicrousness of Western life, at least as perceived through the African lens.
Set during in The Lost Decade of Zimbabwe, the book not only zooms into the too often agonising life of the expatriate but provides some valuable insight into the political and economic landscape, the shaky opposition and the corruption which set into the fabric of Zimbabwean life. It is also a journey into Zimbabwean classics mostly played through The Magistrate’s headphones.
Being a work of literature, a ruthless one at that (The Guardian called Huchu ‘unflinching) it is not without casualties. The Mugabe Regime naturally takes a few shots, like the cringe-worthy moment when a Nomatter Tagarira, a spirit medium convinced them, at the cost of millions, she could draw diesel from a rock. So does Tsvangirai and his MDC, Bush and Blair et al. Fellow countryman, expatriate and novelist Brian Chikwava also takes shrapnel. According to two characters, Harare North is an awful book! According to Chenai, Chikwava “cannae be bovvered to learn proper English”.
As far as style goes it’s pretty clean and free flowing, the prose is compelling and propels the story forward with frequent beautiful turn of phrases like, ‘skeletons on parade’ where he describes naked birches. The final chapter folds with an eerie exchange, I will risk the literati running me out of town with pitchforks and compare it to the conversation between O’Brien and Winston towards the end of Orwell’s 1984.
A novel which deals with fundamental questions of the age such as the nature of ‘democracy – The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician comes at a time when writers from the continent are protesting the ‘African Literature’ tag and this text goes a long way in making the case. Though majorly concerned with the lives of three Zimbabweans abroad and those around them, it’s a universal and truly illuminating work.