Friday, November 27, 2015

Kirkus Review of 'The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician'

In this much-anticipated second novel from Huchu (The Hairdresser of Harare, 2015), the lives of three Zimbabwean transplants to Edinburgh intertwine as they struggle to make a place for themselves in a foreign land.
“You know why these people colonised us, right?” a friend says early on to the character known only as the Magistrate. “It’s the cold, it drives a man mad, so, when they came to Africa and saw us lounging in the sun, it drove them absolutely berserk.” Huchu is a master of crafting savvy and wry social observations. Here, complex characters are organically created through heightened, vivid dialogue and stream-of-consciousness interior thoughts. The Magistrate—who served in this judicial capacity back home in the city of Bindura, Zimbabwe, but has yet to find work in Scotland—feels the shame of being unable to provide for his family “looping round his intestines” while his relationship with his wife grows strained because of it. Farai, a Ph.D. student in economics whose family remains back in Zimbabwe, instead aches with the absence of his family and his homeland. The pot-smoking Maestro simply seeks comfort in drugs and entertainment. The loss and preservation of one’s own culture in an alien land is a major theme: “his daughter had been here too long” and was in danger of losing her Zimbabwean cultural values, moans the Magistrate. “Already her speech had a slight Scottish inflexion.” But as the political situation in Zimbabwe grows unstable, the personal lives of the expatriates also spiral dangerously out of control in a series of suspenseful, albeit somewhat contrived, plot points.
A sensitive exploration of the concepts of identity, family, and home grounded in a rich, intricately detailed depiction of the immigrant experience of the global African diaspora.
Nov 19th, 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

'The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician' reviewed in Wales Arts Review

After the success of his debut, The Hairdresser of Harare (2010), Tendai Huchu’s second novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is a cleverly written, multi-layered narrative about the lives of three Zimbabwean men residing in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is set in the early-to-mid 2000s, with its characters following the political unrest in Zimbabwe under the Mugabe Regime, all the while mapping out new lives in Edinburgh.

The chapters alternatively follow each character’s story; three different novellas are interweaved together. The Magistrate, a middle aged, once well-respected man of law, now trying to adjust to a new life in Edinburgh where his qualifications and titles mean little. While his wife has secured a job, the Magistrate remains without one, straining their relationship, all the while trying to come to terms with a teenage daughter growing up in an alien culture.

The second narrative follows Farai, the Mathematician. A PhD student writing his thesis on hyperinflation in African economies, who comes across some extremely important papers during his research. Farai closely follows the political upheaval in Zimbabwe too, having strong ties and family still there. Coming from a wealthy background, he is an opinionated character, who interprets the world through a self-assured judgement that the reader may often question. In his early twenties, Farai is representative of ‘laddish culture’ with his male flatmates and their casual sexism. Arguably a flawed character, Tendai Huchu somehow still makes Farai a likeable one to the very end of the novel.

The last but not least is the Maestro, a man immersed entirely in literature, working in a menial position at a superstore. The Maestro is intensely withdrawn, representing the ‘outsider’ who feels and sees everything deeply on another level. There is a dose of pessimism to the way he sees the world, yet many of his thoughts are reflective of our thoughts as the Maestro contemplates existential philosophy, from Sartre to Nietzsche, all the while spiralling downwards psychologically. The idea that, thinking is good, overthinking is bad, applies to the Maestro, who arguably becomes a nobody, yet representative of everybody at some point in their life. He is also the most mysterious character of the novel, as the reader reads on hoping to find out the events or family connections that may explain his isolated and dejected character, afraid of letting people in.

Connecting these three is Alfonso, a seemingly buffoon of a character and fellow Zimbabwean in diaspora Edinburgh. Despair leads the Magistrate to Alfonso, who gets him a job at a nursing home as a carer, while also introducing him to the MDC in Scotland, the political opposition to ZANU-PF. Alfonso plays a key role in interweaving these narratives and bringing the characters together, as well as being a catalyst for the events that take place. The reader may easily undermine him, only to be proven otherwise later on.

Against the backdrop of Edinburgh, the idea of the city in relation to the characters is a predominant one, as illustrated by the cover. Through the Magistrate’s long walks and bus rides we encounter the city. He becomes a flâneur figure, physically mapping out the urban city around him with every stride while listening to Zimbabwean music, as though trying to adapt to the unfamiliar with the help of the familiar. Influences of psychogeographical texts are evident here.

The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is a very self-conscious novel, and to label it as one that simply depicts the estranged immigrant experience in a foreign country would be rudimentary and limiting to what it has to offer to the reader. It is about that, yet so much more. Written in eloquent yet humorous prose, its characters experience and consider ideas that are very relatable and universal. With its theme of class and the irony of downward social mobility, as opposed to upward that the characters seek through migration, there is a clear distinction between each of their narratives. Tendai Huchu depicts the way they talk, their worldviews and their lives in a very real, authentic manner. From the Maestro’s intensely lyrical block text to Farai’s free indirect colloquial speech, their energy bounces off the pages. Tendai Huchu himself makes a humorous appearance at one point, as the annoying writer character that Farai encounters at a party, who starts talking about his writing.

Arguably, there are influences of the postmodern in the novel’s fragmentation and the themes of belonging, loss and identity and focus on the localised, individual story. As Alfonso states to the Magistrate, “when all is said and done, all anyone will ever care about is your story”. And it does just that by leaving a lasting impression on the reader. Yet the novel is a different one at the end to the one that the reader begins with. There are no ‘loose ends’ in the carefully structured plot, and the surprise ending makes the reader want to go back and reread it again in a new light.

With its knitting together of languages and political history, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician flows well even for a reader unfamiliar with Zimbabwean culture. The surprise ending and the variations in the style of writing might throw some readers off, while for others, add to the richness of the novel. Books allow us to reach places and experience lives we otherwise would not, and this one does just that. A literary fiction that isn’t afraid to tackle issues and is bold yet playful in doing so, this one is a must read.

by Durre S. Mughal,

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dan Wylie reviews Textures, a poetry collaboration by Zimbabwe's John Eppel and Togara Muzanenhamo

Commemorating sight and sound

Textures must be one of the most unusual, even ironic, poetry collaborations to have come out of Zimbabwe in recent years. Zimbabwe’s publishing industry being in a state of near-total collapse now, amaBooks in Bulawayo represents a rare light of literary trust and hope – and this is a particularly brave publication.
One limb of this attractive double-hander is John Eppel, probably now the country’s most long-standing resident poet and satirical novelist. He is vilified in government-controlled rags such as The Patriot, partly just for being white, inconveniently and persistently present, partly because his satiric tone and self-deprecating demeanour are routinely missed or misunderstood. He has now published a number of poetry volumes, beginning with Spoils of War (1988), and a swathe of satirical novellas and short-story collections. These have become a little more serious of late, approaching the seriousness of the poetry in this volume (except, to be sure, the poem “Dorothy Recollects”, in which he sends up his own ‘colonial’ Wordsworthian Romantic inheritance).
The second limb is less well-known, a younger and almost preternaturally talented newcomer, Togara Muzanenhamo. Unlike Eppel, who as far as I know has never been published in volume form overseas, Muzanenhamo has already been picked up by Carcanet Press in the UK. These two poets’ contributions (some 30 poems apiece) are arranged in interlocking groups, setting one another off in intriguing ways.
It is both ironic and heart-warming to see the white and the black, the established and the upcoming, in counterpoint and communion. Ironic also because – contrary to stereotype – it is Eppel (though South African-born) who appears the rooted local, Muzanenhamo the globally-travelled intellectual. Eppel writes about the local flora, fauna (especially birds, here), and landscapes, and of highly personalised feelings; Muzanenhamo writes mostly of anywhere but Zimbabwe – Peru, the USA, Norway, Mozambique – alongside apparently wholly unlocatable, almost fantasial scenarios.
The volume is prefaced with a perceptive introduction by Drew Shaw, then lecturer at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology. He quotes a revealing and poignant comment by Eppel:
[A]s you get older you have a much more powerful sense of mortality, so you don’t take being alive for granted anymore. But you don’t see life and death in nature; you just see one form of energy changing into another form of energy, in nature time is cyclical. And somehow I think there’s consolation for ageing poets to spend more time observing the minutest details out there.
Those details, however, are always turned to inner psychological capital, with mythic resonances, as in one of the several bird poems, “Brown-Hooded Kingfisher”:
                                    You have been immobilized
by instinct, by a chronic state of bliss.
You once fished in waters above the sky,
in the firmament of death and desire.
… Impossible beak,
orange legs, reddish feet glued to a tree;
Dickensian eyebrows, unnerving shriek
shadowed by a gentling, ‘pity for me’.
This exemplifies a number of characteristic features of Eppel’s poetry: the intimate, almost scientific detail, the precise rhythms and stanzaic rhymes, and a certain intrusive note of the maudlin. Also, the hint at his wide reading in the allusion to Dickens; such referencing – a trait he shares with his companion poet – gets quite dense on occasion:
Can’t get that dangling girl out of my mind,
nor the jealousy that provoked it. Why
are pampered Olympians so unkind
to mortals who challenge them, vivify
them in the first place? Athene, mistress
of weaving, versus the Lydian wench,
Arachne, who dares to make Olympus
say yes to human pain. How do the French
put it: la Terre détruit le Ciel?
It’s a story Sartre might want to tell. (“Golden Orb Spider”)
A jocular tone wrestles with nostalgia for the entanglements of thwarted or lost love – perhaps his presently most common theme – and the colloquial ironically counterbalances the careful form. The hyper-local is viewed with affectionate wryness through the lens of world literatures. These are subtleties typical of Eppel at his best.   He works persistently with ‘traditional’ European forms – four-line stanzas, villanelles, and especially sonnets, as in the sequence here of five sonnets exploring the environs and sentimental meanings of Bulawayo’s Hillside Dams. Here, childhood memories, lost loves and everyday textures mingle in intimately realised scents and sounds.
Muzanenhamo, by contrast, tends to utilise the limber and fragmented forms characteristic of late Modernism: he combines, one might say, the intellectual prism of an Auden with the vivacity of a Neruda. Like Eppel, though, Muzanenhamo reveals an extraordinary range of reading, often glimpsed in his poems’ epigraphs, which come from unlikely sources, ranging from a cricketer and a Tour de France cyclist to quotation from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A lot of his reading, and so his subject-matter, is historical: so he manages to derive strangely universal meaning from locales ranging from a car mechanic’s workshop to a sailboat to a cemetery in Lexington, USA. In almost every case the technical terms are wielded with complete confidence. Yet most remains visceral and vivid: a poem about a typically abstruse subject, the 1665 Battle of Vågen in Bergen, Norway, includes this segment:
Cannon fire thundered with the heavy vibrato of war.
From his vantage point he could see the crafts
shivering after bouts of light hung
long then rang with distant noise.
In his mind, the thought
of men dying could not be reconciled
with what he viewed. Rain coursed down his face
salted with tears he could not hold back…
Muzenanhamo has an enviable ability to imagine himself into such an historical situation. Other of his poems also seem to displace the ‘personal’ emotional life at one remove into imagined scenarios; some read like snatches from South American magic-realist novels. “Peruvian Sunsets” opens thus:
Xalvadora stumbled back after Alvaro removed his boots. It wasn’t that Alvaro’s foot was metallic, nor was it the foot’s cold mercurial glow that caused her to panic and suddenly retreat with fear; no – it wasn’t that at all. When Xalvadora looked down again at Alvaro’s bloodless ankle, she saw her own face staring back…
It’s all rather mysterious yet, within its own world, weirdly persuasive. Muzenanhamo’s final twenty-poem sequence, “Game of 12 Moons” – an extended collection to balance Eppel’s Hillside Dams series – is more poetically lyrical but equally cryptic, like overheard segments from lost folktales:
She had been playing the game
with her shadow,
the game of twelve moons –
lifting floorboards in the kitchen,
whispering hurriedly to herself.
The sun would rise soon,
the smell of the air would change,
as would everything else
in the forest.
This is airy and simple, compared to most of his poetry, which incorporates a rare and cerebral sophistication. Nothing could be further from the run-of-the-mill Zimbabwean fare which deals obsessively and dully on common themes, reducing poetry to obvious proverbial mantras and demonstrating a tentative grasp on linguistic accuracies. Eppel writes more accessibly, perhaps, though the loops of his thought, self-consciously yet conversationally threaded through careful patterns of rhyme and syllabics, present enough density to reward many re-readings.
In a way, the two poets are united by so high a degree of craft that almost every poem – they are not all equally weighty or felicitous – serves as a kind of meta-meditation upon poetry itself. As Eppel writes in the poem “Tortoise”:
[T]hose who commemorate sight and sound –
poets, composers, and picture-makers –
will complete the work of undertakers,
and begin the work of he ‘who with his finger wrote on the ground.’
Textures is published by amaBooks.
Dan Wylie is professor of English at Rhodes University.