Thursday, April 30, 2015

Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician – An African Novel and Then Some.

Posted on April 29, 2015 by Jeanne-Marie Jackson

Dostoevsky’s book Demons, about an intellectual “circle” in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is a novel of ideas. This is not a term one hears thrown around much in the many current debates about African writing, and with good reason. “Ideas” seem much less central to the questions with which African / not-African / Afropolitan / global authors and critics are concerned than things like story, identity, or politics. The emphasis on ideas as something distinct from their human vessels, though, is a big thing to lose. Thankfully, the Zimbabwe-born, Edinburgh-based novelist Tendai Huchu’s new book reminds us that serious thinking is as important as driving home what we already know.

The Maestro, the Magistrate, & The Mathematician in fact alludes to Dostoevsky in one of its most provocative references. The book is structured as three separate plotlines that ultimately converge in the Zimbabwean diaspora’s party politics. One of them, The Maestro’s, tracks a grocery-store worker through his increasingly febrile reading habits. As he descends (or Dostoevsky might say, rises) into a state of social alienation and intellectual agitation, he likens himself to Kirillov, the character from Demons who theorized about and then committed a “rational” suicide. Kirillov’s motivation was to kill himself as a means of attaining ideological fulfillment, instead of out of fear to go on living a meaningless life. He believed that this could “kill God,” and Huchu’s Maestro likewise ponders the theological problem of free will: “How could a human being do anything other than what God already knew he was going to do? And if God did not know the future then God was not omnipotent.” This scene captures the achievement of the book as a whole, in the sense that it links characters in recognizable social dilemmas with deep-seated structural contemplation.

While literary conversations these days tend to focus on how writers themselves are represented, Huchu takes risks with his technique of representation. One of the most woeful lacks in politically correct reading (which does lots of good things, too) is a distinction between stereotype and type. Types are essential to crafting a broad social canvas; they forge legible figures to act as both characters and commentary. Huchu’s typological palette is formidably broad: the other two plots of his novel are about, respectively, a distinguished former judge who now works in a nursing home, and a hip young economics PhD student. They are hilariously rendered through their foibles and self-parody, in a style that is incisive rather than lyrical. The Magistrate is horrified at men being present for childbirth, and The Mathematician sticks to a “four-week rule” for not going without sex. In those plots, especially, Huchu’s eye for social rather than subjective precision pays off in humor with real edge. Without giving too much away, the perennial favorite question of race’s relation to animal rights comes into the picture. (For once, it does not involve dogs.)

This combination of hilarity and social-intellectual zing carries through the novel’s depiction of Zimbabwean politics, as well. One of Huchu’s best scenes takes place at an Edinburgh MDC rally, which gets off to a late start because someone forgot the keys to the building it’s held in. When a local councillor (who is confused with the mayor) shows up to “make a speech” at the MDC branch chairman’s request, he is disoriented by a succession of puffed-up Pamberi!’s, and an only half-remembered Zimbabwean national anthem. A page later, Huchu narrates what he manages to glean from the affair:

There was a man called Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe was a bad man.
Mugabe must go (although it was unclear exactly where to).
Mugabe was ‘killing peoples’.
The BBC had something to do with it.
The chairman was prepared to die for his beliefs.
Mugabe must go now (see 3).
Mugabe must stand trial and be found guilty.
I am laughing so hard as I copy down this excerpt that it seems criminal not to confess it.

Finally, The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician manages to capture African diasporic realities without over-playing the extent to which “diasporic identity” determines people’s views. The Magistrate falls from socioeconomic grace in his relocation to the UK, but his core values and frameworks remain avowedly Shona. The Mathematician, too, continues to measure his social standing by what’s happening in Harare: he has a working-class white girlfriend and he’s clearly the one on top, with frequent flights home and phone calls from his father about market predictions. (“Dude,” he says at one point to a nostalgic friend, “niggas ain’t had it this good in 300 years and you wanna time travel back to the 50s? Shiiit, you’d have wound up in some township being tear gassed and having dogs set on you by those motherfucking Rhodies.”) It is similarly refreshing to see so much Shona in a novel without translation, and yet also without hindering the reading experience for people who don’t know the language.

By the end of the book, suffice it to say that Huchu arrives at a somber note. On the way there, he crafts moments of real human poignancy (such as the Magistrate’s reunion with his wife), but never veers into cheap valorization of either hope or despair. In its model of interconnectedness instead of “mobility,” the only recent novel from or about southern Africa that recalls it is Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System. These two are almost in a conversation all their own, and it is one we should hear much more of. The Shona saying for a “breath of fresh air” is mhepo ino tonhorera, and Huchu really is.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tendai Huchu interviewed on Geosi Reads

Interview with Zimbabwean Writer, Tendai Huchu

from Geosi Reads: A World of Literary Pieces

Photo: Tendai Huchu
Brief Biography:
Tendai Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish. His multi-genre short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, Interzone, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report and elsewhere. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician.

Geosi Gyasi: Perhaps, we could start with your new novel, “The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician”. Could you tell us how you came to write it?
Tendai Huchu: I wanted to tell a story about the time and the city I live in. When you’ve been doing this thing for a good while, you’re hit by ideas near enough every day, and the hard part is choosing which to discard and which to run with. I guess I wrote this because the idea was super loud in my head and wouldn’t go away. Writing the book then became a form of exorcism.

Geosi Gyasi: The title of the book is interesting. How did you arrive at the title?
Tendai Huchu: The title is a bit of a misnomer because the book contains some misdirection. But I liked the alliteration in the mmm.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation goes into the writing of a novel?
Tendai Huchu: I haven’t figured it out yet. I think you have to approach each work as it comes. My first novel was very spontaneous, but that wouldn’t fly with this book because it required a lot of careful architectural planning to work as a whole. The project I’m moving on to next requires a lot of historical research. The two crucial ingredients you need are time and determination, outside of that it’s there but for the grace…

Geosi Gyasi: In a few sentences, could you tell us what “The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician” is all about?
Tendai Huchu: It’s about three men living in Edinburgh, trying to find a place for themselves in the city. It’s a novel about ideas, music, memory, love, that kind of shit.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write the book?
Tendai Huchu: Three years or thereabouts. A lot of false starts and U-turns in the process. Madness.

Geosi Gyasi: How different is “The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician” different from your first novel, “The Hairdresser of Harare”?
Tendai Huchu: I think stylistically, thematically and structurally, it’s a little more complex. You have to take each idea as it comes and find the correct form in which it will manifest as a novel.

Geosi Gyasi: Between the two books, which of them do you feel more closely attached to?
Tendai Huchu: I’m more attached to the book I’m thinking of writing next. And when that’s done, I shall be more attached to the one that comes after.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you often depend on personal experiences to write?
Tendai Huchu: Not really, no. I mean you obviously have to know something to write it, but the fun is in taking imaginative leaps and putting yourself in your characters’ stilettos.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?
Tendai Huchu: It can be difficult, frustrating and a host of other shitty things, but boring is never one of them. I mean you’re creating stuff, dude; that’s so much fun. You’re the cat who’s like, “Let there be light,” and there is light. Could you ever get bored with that kind of magic wand?

Geosi Gyasi: Is there anything interesting about writing?
Tendai Huchu: There are no boundaries, no limits whatsoever; it can be anything that you want it to be. It’s not interesting, it’s Amazing. Brings out the kid in me.

Geosi Gyasi: This could go into my records as the most witless question I’ve ever asked but why do you write?
Tendai Huchu: It’s an impulse. We all have the storytelling gene inside of us. I read a lot, and I fantasise that when I write, I’m only telling the story that I want to read, but it’s not there in my library yet.

Geosi Gyasi: How often do you follow the political situation in Zimbabwe?
Tendai Huchu: Fairly often. I have an interest in politics around the world. Whether you like it or not, politics is about people and power, and it governs every aspect of your life – what you can or cannot say, who you may or may not marry, whether your faith is permissible or not, the quality of air you breathe, the salt in your food, whether you even have the right to exist or not…

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know who reads your books?
Tendai Huchu: I’ve met diverse readers along the way at literary events and stuff. I get the occasional email from someone who’s been touched by my work, which is really cool. Readers are gracious and kind in the main and one can only be grateful when someone else takes the time to engage with their work.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get the idea for your story, “The Second Coming of Dambudzo Marechera”?
Tendai Huchu: Fungai Machirori who runs Her Zimbabwe suggested we do something for Marechera’s anniversary last year. I thought I’d do a pastiche of the guy and it was a lot of fun. The idea was to have just enough in there from his original works to fool the reader into thinking it might just be plausible, then, around that base code, I had room to do my own thing.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us anything about Dambudzo Marechera?
Tendai Huchu: Easily the most popular and influential Zimbabwean writer ever. He’s a sort of cultural icon, though few people actually engage with his work, so he has that special quality of being everything to everyone.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer has had the greatest influence on your writing?
Tendai Huchu: I read a lot and am constantly getting influenced by different writers at different phases in my life. I really couldn’t pick one.

Geosi Gyasi: How different is a novel different from a short story?
Tendai Huchu: The most obvious answer is that the length constraints in the short story require a certain economy where the novel can be more forgiving. The short story demands precision. You often have to dispense with the build up and start smack-bang in the action. It’s debatable whether the form is truly as immersive as the novel, but for the writer, working in the short form requires s/he put on a different head.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that writers are boring to hang around with?
Tendai Huchu: That stereotype is pretty much true, except for the sci-fi crowd which is full of really, really interesting people with the most fascinating ideas you can imagine.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your literary plans for the future?
Tendai Huchu: At the moment I’m translating Mapenzi by Ignatius Mabasa from Shona to English. I’ll be on that project for the next couple of months. Outside of that, I have no real plans; just take it one day at a time, I suppose.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you an avid reader?
Tendai Huchu: Yep. I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t a reader. I don’t think anyone can truly engage with any established craft unless they’re a fan first. Imagine the footballer who says he wants to play but he doesn’t give a hoot about watching the game, doesn’t know the greats – Pele, Maradona – let alone the rules of the game, but somehow the motherfucker wants to jam for Man United. How does that work?

Geosi Gyasi: What are you likely to be caught doing if not writing?
Tendai Huchu: Cycle a bit. Walk now and again. Watch popular movies a lot – I’m talking blockbusters with loads of explosions: think Michael Bay. Live life and wait for the next idea.

Friday, April 24, 2015

'The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician' reviewed on 'Bookmuse'

The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu

reviewed on
Thursday, 23 April 2015

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought

The stories of three Zimbabwean men in Edinburgh is intriguing and unusual. The Magistrate used to dispense justice back home. Here, he cleans the toilet. The Mathematician makes money and indulges himself in the belief he won’t be here for long. The Maestro collects shopping trollies in Tesco’s car park and reads. The three men’s lives intersect and cross, meeting the challenges of a different culture with varying measures of success. 

This book is rounded, measured and smart, and anything but a miserable tale of immigrant isolation. Intelligence and thought shine off the page via these layered and introspective characters. Farai’s casual sexism and judgemental views are offset by his willingness to engage with the old man in the café. The Magistrate’s adaptation to his changed circumstances is beautifully encapsulated in his memories of the maid. The Maestro’s gradual retreat from the world in search of meaning in books is slow, heart-breaking and completely plausible. 

Whilst the main characters are more than enough to grip your attention, the supporting cast add still more light, shade and laughter. Alfonso, the rodent Del Boy alcoholic, is infuriating and hilarious at once. Tatyana, the Maestro’s Polish friend who would be more, is alternately invasive and vulnerable. One of the most powerful personalities in the book is Edinburgh itself. Huchu uses the city to the full: its people, its architecture, its humour. 

The bittersweet ending left me sorry to leave these people and this place, but curious to read more by this talented, sly and unpredictable writer. Tendai Huchu is one to watch.

You’ll enjoy this if you likedThe Bridge by Iain Banks, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. 

Avoid if you dislike: Change, perspectives on politics and change, thinking. 

Ideal accompaniments: A full Scottish breakfast, rock shandy and Baobab Gateway. 

Genre: Literary fiction 

Available on Amazon

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician reviewed on 'pettywitter'


Reviewed by Tracy Terry, 16 April 2015

BACK COVER BLURB: Three very different men struggle with thoughts of belonging, loss, identity and love as they attempt to find a place for themselves in Britain. The Magistrate tries to create new memories and roots, fusing a wandering exploration of Edinburgh with music. The Maestro, a depressed, quixotic character, sinks out of the real world into the fantastic world of literature. The Mathematician, full of youth, follows a carefree, hedonistic lifestyle, until their three universes collide.

FIRST SENTENCE {Edinburgh: The Magistrate}: There was a knock on the door of the last house on Craigmillar Castle Road.

MEMORABLE MOMENT {Page 93}: Chenai walked up to him and hugged him. It was like she was trying to draw poison out of a wound. He almost cried, but men don't cry, real men never cry. He felt the weight of his age pressing down on every joint as he released her. His little girl giving him relationship advice, the wheel of life turning.

MY THOUGHTS: Revolving around three different characters, all from Zimbabwe, all far from their homeland, all facing their own challenges, their individual stories entwining as the novel progresses.

Though set in Edinburgh - its landmarks ingeniously mapped out by the author courtesy of the music played through The Magistrate's Walkman - The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician also lends itself to an insight into the politics and economics of a not too distant Zimbabwe.

A very human story that isn't afraid to deal with issues both big and small. For me the most memorable (and perhaps poignant) being the case of 'The Magistrate' in which the reader gets to consider a man, a 'somebody' in the land he left behind, reduced to a life of housework and 'menial jobs' in his adopted home.

Amongst the best novels about migrants and the plights that they face that I have read. The only concern I have (small though it may be) being that the characters were each written in a very different style which though great as a means of setting them apart as individuals somehow just didn't work well for me.