Identity, belonging and loss are the unholy trinity of the immigrant experience. Millions of Zimbabweans have emigrated throughout the world since the early 2000s. The very fortunate left by choice, to pursue further education; the majority left in search of a better quality of life for their families; the remainder for reasons known only to themselves.
In the novel The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician, the Zimbabwean-born writer Tendai Huchu introduces us to three Zimbabwean-born men living very different lives in Edinburgh in the early 2000s.
“If there is one thing I’ve learnt in the last few years, it’s that everyone needs a story. That’s all our lives amount to, nothing but stories that we hope will live on after we are gone.”
When we first meet The Magistrate, he is struggling with accepting how his life has changed. Formerly a Someone, a man of means, in Zimbabwe, he is now living as his wife’s dependant, together with his teenage daughter. His storyline is steady in pace and it is to him we return every second chapter as a means of anchoring the overall story.
Farai, The Mathematician, is doing a Ph.D. in economics. His focus on high-risk, high-reward profiteering during short periods of hyperinflation is a nod to the unanswered questions surrounding how some senior Zimbabwean government officials managed to thrive while the nation’s economy buckled prior to the adoption of the United States dollar. Young and carefree, he comes from a wealthy family and is the only character to enjoy his entire Edinburgh experience.
The mysterious Maestro is the last of the main characters. White, and possibly suffering from a mental illness, we meet him at the top of a cliff and periodically check in with him as he freefalls to the bottom. Although he was a member of a visual minority as a white man in Zimbabwe, the Maestro would have lived a very comfortable life by any standard, regardless of how humble his background. Given that he is now part of the visual majority in Edinburgh, we’d expect his assimilation to be the easiest of the three. Could it be that the author chose to use a sick mind as a narrative device to show the trauma associated with going from being a ‘baas’ to being the same as everyone else in the blink of an eye?
“But, if there is one thing I’ve learnt in the last few years, it’s that everyone needs a story. That’s all our lives amount to, nothing but stories that we hope will live on after we are gone.” Although uttered by a secondary character in the book, these words perfectly encapsulate Huchu’s goal – to tell a story that will linger with us well after it is over.
Leave Your Assumptions at The Door
Having thoroughly enjoyed The Hairdresser of Harare, Huchu’s debut novel, I was looking forward to more of the same humour and a clearly identifiable storyline in his second book. That was my first (but not my biggest) mistake. The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is actually three almost independent novellas with no consequential links to each other until the very last moment.
The biggest mistake I made was to assume that because the protagonists and author were all African men living in Europe, the novel could be labeled an ‘immigrant novel’. Far from it – the real story happened in the background, in the mother country, with ‘immigrant tales’ distracting us in the foreground.
“The funny thing is that when some white dude writes a novel set anywhere in Africa or Asia, it’s never referred to as an immigrant novel. They just have the right to be where they want to be and to write what they want.”
In an interview Huchu was asked how immigration affected his writing and his response was caustic: “The funny thing is that when some white dude writes a novel set anywhere in Africa or Asia, it’s never referred to as an immigrant novel. They just have the right to be where they want to be and to write what they want.” That’s exactly what Huchu did with this piece of work – he wrote the story that he wanted to write. If our assumptions and myopia created a certain set of expectations, then that was our mistake, not his.
This is an ambitious work. Each novella has a unique tempo and tone and weaving them together was never going to be easy. Some of the transitions between the characters felt a bit jarring and, as enjoyable as the storytelling was, the middle of the book felt somewhat bloated – it was big, but missing something crucial.
Under the surface
Mark Twain said that “humour is the good-natured side of a truth”. Huchu uses humour as a means of social commentary. There are no sacred cows; religion, politics and relationships are all fair game. My favourite scene is The Magistrate’s first meeting of the Edinburgh branch of the Zimbabwean opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In it, Peter, a hapless councillor, is sent to represent the Mayor’s Office at a meeting for an organisation he knows nothing about. He has the following conversation with Alfonso, a character who introduces himself as “Alfonso Pfukuto, first secretary of the MDC in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, European Union”. (The book clearly pre-dates the Brexit vote.):
“So what’s your party’s philosophy?” Peter asked.
“Change, that’s all we want, that’s all we stand for,” Alfonso replied, fiddling with his camera.
“What do you mean? What sort of change?”
“Well, erm, democratic change. We are a movement, you see. What we want to do first and foremost is change the names of the roads. At the moment a lot of the roads are named after their people, and we have to change that.”
“I don’t think I quite follow.”
“It’s the same with the Heroes’ Acre. At the moment they put their people in it, but we want to put our own people in there as well. You wait and see, a lot of things are going to change.”
What appears at first glance to be a dig at the opposition party and their motives can also be seen as the expression of legitimate concerns around the gatekeeping and ownership of Zimbabwean history by Robert Mugabe and his party, Zanu-PF.
It seems fitting that The Magistrate is the character that is used to interrogate gender dynamics. His days examining evidence in court come in handy. On more than one occasion he wistfully remembers the maid they employed in Zimbabwe as he does chores around the house. He also spends time musing about the messages in Sungura music (a genre of Zimbabwean music that is the result of a melding of the brooding Rhumba sound from central and east Africa with local, percussive rhythms) and the irony that although songs about abusive marriages exist, they were sung by men pretending to be women, given that there were no female Sungura artists.
The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician isn’t a beach read. Although littered with humour and light-hearted moments, the layers of meaning require active reading to be appreciated. Huchu took a tremendous leap of faith in experimenting so much with tone, structure and storyline. While the novel didn’t quite reach what it was aiming for, it is certainly one I will reread in the future to see if hindsight is indeed 20/20.