Book Review: The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, by Tendai Huchu
Reviewed by Fungai Machirori
The Standard, Harare, May 17 2015
Tendai Huchu’s latest novel offering is a look into the lives of three Zimbabweans as they attempt, to different extents, to assimilate into Scotland, and make meaning of life and the various questions and experiences it brings their respective ways.
It’s interesting that the Maestro is listed first in the title of the book as it is him whom I feel the reader learns least about. An opaque character going through a tortured search for the meaning of existence, the Maestro decides to place all his faith in books – the works of Kafka, Nietzsche, Sartre and others – to provide him the ultimate insight into what is otherwise unknowable. But as he moves further into this world, he realises that it too – just as his mechanical job packing shelves in a supermarket – has its own restlessness, its own tedium.
Perhaps it is inaccurate that I say he is the character least known of, as it is the Maestro whose deepest vulnerabilities and psychedelic thoughts one becomes most acquainted with. It is he – whose ruminations about life and death, whose detachment from a menial life that has become a death in itself – who adds a necessary darkness and dimension to a narrative that would otherwise relate a tolerable sort of daily Zimbabwean strife, a strife punctuated with the usual humour and forbearance that is either our succour or Achilles heel, depending on the way one sees things.
The Magistrate is a man of high repute who has left Zimbabwe because the political environment has become unfavourable to his practice and principles. With his wife now the family’s breadwinner and his daughter developing into a sharp-tongued teen, he has to forge a way within this new home, Edinburgh, and the distorted roles it yields for him.
Still holding dearly to the artefacts of home and memory, he uses sungura music –playing on the Walkman he moves around with – as the soundtrack to his discovery of this new place with its history and foreign majesty. His new interest in sungura (the Magistrate is described as a jazz aficionado), with its typical exhortations and narrations of personal strife, becomes a way for him to understand and console himself. At the same time, it also represents a collapse of distinct class demarcations and roles, something that would be more prominent back in Zimbabwe where diligent consumption of sungura might be considered ‘low class’ for a man of his stature.
The Mathematician is a product of privilege, in Scotland by choice as he pursues his PhD and hangs out with his group of friends who find themselves with far less stability. His is the happy-go-lucky character, young, sharp and witty; his experience of the diaspora is one of adventure and certainly more comfort than the Maestro and Magistrate. While all of the voices are contemporary, I would say that it is the Mathematician’s that is freshest, and also, most startling in its brashness and bravado. It’s quite clear from the onset that you will either love or hate the Mathematician; or that failing, find him completely incomprehensible.
What I found most enjoyable about this novel is Huchu’s ability to make his characters’ language – as well his own – speak to their various circumstances, and to the general theme of change and adaptation. Traffic lights are referred to in Zimbabwean colloquialism as robots, while people are sat next to each other, as per British parlance. There is also a peppering of Scottish English, as spoken for instance by Chenai (the Magistrate’s daughter), which make the characters – and their changes – believable.
Every now and then, the Mathematician’s language features numbers, a reminder to the reader of his cockiness; even his language can’t quite be tamed, or fully accessed. It may also explain the inaccessibility of emotions of rage and anger when they might be suitably justified at pivotal moments in the novel.
The same may be said of the Maestro whose impervious character is accentuated by long blocks of text which never feature paragraphs.
Also, Huchu uses italicisation as a means to convey what I perceive as different extents of comfort within this new setting of home. For instance, when the Magistrate speaks in Shona, this text is never italicised. It is simply a progression of discussion which the reader must accept, whether or not they understand what is being said. With the Mathematician, however, such texts (as well as other points where arrogant emphasis is required) are italicised, giving those points of thought and conversation a character of otherness, or at least potential dispensability. This cleverly shows how artefacts of home – including language – are often negotiated differently depending on a variety of factors including level of comfort in a new space, and level of longing for an old space.
Another striking thing is that by the end of the novel you realise that of all three characters, the Magistrate’s name has never been revealed, his positioning attached to his profession, and social role as Baba Chenai, for “… a name had to mean something, and what more fundamental meaning could be bestowed on person than their relationship to others in the family?” (pg. 241) It is a generational subtlety, in much the same way the Magistrate bemoans the lack of extended family to intervene in sensitive family issues he feels ill-equipped to mediate.
A lot of effort must have gone into researching Edinburgh as the characters’ ruminations on its terrain are complemented by thoughtful and measured descriptions of the environment and its history. Here, I am reminded of Julius’s contemplative observations of New York city in Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’. In both instances, the writers show a high level of endearment and respect for their settings, as well as a lot of patience and effort in making the scenery as palpable to the reader as possible.
But yet even with all its beauty, Huchu depicts a city with its own dark underbelly where people die alone and lonely, and live in the same way; a place where a shared nationality forms tenuous ties that do not necessarily equate to loyalty or kinship.
The humour is dark; a fracas at an MDC meeting shows up some of the power hunger that manifests even in the desire for change. And a last – and unexpected – twist to the plot in the final pages reveals how so often, the roles and identities we assume are not what they seem at face value.
What I appreciate about Huchu’s writing is that it doesn’t feel like it holds back. You will be surprised and perhaps unsettled at times, but you will have to deal with that or simply stop reading. And stopping, I assure you, would rob you of partaking of a beautifully crafted and poignant world.