Friday, August 19, 2016

The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, or the Lonely Scotlanders

Reviewed by Dami Ajayi (
Title: The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician Author: Tendai Huchu
Publisher: ‘amaBooks
Number of pages: 273
Year of publication: 2014 Category: Fiction

Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu’s second book, a novel, is called The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, a rather mouthful title that enjoys the playful alliteration of a recalcitrant poet.
This novel follows his acclaimed debut novel called The Hairdresser of Harare (another title that is a subtle work of alliteration), which used the urban space of a beauty salon to explore themes of homosexuality, love, family life and other complications of modern life in Zimbabwe.
His new book also deals with Zimbabwe, but Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the author himself currently resides. Through the eyes of three characters, who collectively lend their monikers to the book title, the immigrant experience is explored once again. The life of immigrants has been a fascinating topic for black writers from Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners down to Teju Cole’s Open City.
The aforementioned novels situate the experiences and the insights through which this novelist attempts to revisit the compounding problems of migration. In the intervening years, the home front has not become comfortable enough for the desired ‘Back to Africa project’. If anything, the egress of notable thinkers, intellectuals, skilled labourers and academics persists and Huchu tackles the experience of this ‘fortunate’ lot who leave the homeland in pursuit of better lives abroad.
His characters reside in Scotland, three men of different ages, backgrounds and temperaments. There is The Magistrate, a pot-bellied, stay-home husband and father of a 15-year-old daughter. He has a hard time assimilating to the new clime. Back home, he was a man of means, a judge, but in Edinburgh, he is the husband of an estranged wife, a nurse. The Magistrate takes long, winding walks around the
city whilst listening to Zimbabwean music on a walkman. These walks cast this
city whilst listening to Zimbabwean music on a walkman. These walks cast this character in the role of a flaneur through whose eyes the architectural edifices of the city are navigated. In this sense, he shares a kinship with Julius, Open City’s protagonist, but he is clearly more humane even if his view is equally jaded, skeptical and detached.
Through The Magistrate’s psyche, we experience the resigned alienation of middle- aged migrants whose pursuit of a better life in the Diaspora is at best illusory. His marriage suffers the brutal assault of the colder clime and anxieties about raising a daughter in an alien culture is the gnawing concern that eases in the denouement. He finds solace in drink and the music of his people. By pairing the music of his people with sightseeing in Scotland, he finds a balance between the old and new.
Farai is The Mathematician, a pompous man in his twenties. His Political Science doctoral thesis is on hyperinflation in African economies. He has rich and firm ties to the home country, and his scholarship is being lavishly funded by his family. He lives with his friends, Brian and Scott, a rabbit called Mr Majeika, and he indulges in playing television games. He dates Stacey, a working-class, white girl and ex-porn star. His character sketch is that of a smart man who loves the streets and enjoys the adrenaline rush that living on the edge brings. He is also flotsam in the Diaspora tide although he fancies himself as being in control; he remains dependent on his friends, his Mozambican colleague Nika, and his family to support his lifestyle.
The last of trio is The Maestro, a white Zimbabwean whose experience exacts the worst toll. He is a private person and an avid reader immersed in existential philosophy. His whiteness does not seem to ease his integration; perhaps it even fosters his alienation, which is ultimately self-destructive. Every attempt by his Polish lady friend/love interest to break his cocoon is rebuffed as he journeys deeper and deeper into himself, searching for his essence, till he fractures his mind in a psychotic spell.
These characters are connected by a pivotal character called Alfonso, an unscrupulous, self-proclaimed political organiser. He is, in a sense, the mediating character in this novel. He forces his friendship on The Magistrate and coerces him into participating in the political group he runs; he worked with Farai’s parents in the homeland and parted ways with them under questionable circumstances; he also plays a major role in the final home-going of The Maestro. Almost all major events revolve around Alfonso, either directly or indirectly, and he is indeed the portrait of the well-adjusted African in the Diaspora. Notwithstanding the estrangement and detachment that the immigrant experience presents, Alfonso and the possibilities of his political pressure group offers anchor to displaced Zimbabweans.
Told in stylish and dense prose, this novel subscribes to a certain American
aesthetic of interrogating the immigrant experience in Europe. Mr Huchu wears
aesthetic of interrogating the immigrant experience in Europe. Mr Huchu wears rather proudly the influences of some American authors, most notably David Forster Wallace with whom he could be said to share much more than a love for wearing bandannas.
His prose sometimes strives to be playful even though the weight of serious issues makes this deadpan. Again, there is that narcissistic authorial preoccupation with giving the self a cameo appearance, in this case as a lecherous disc jockey (giving a nod to music). It is not often that you find a novelist so immersed in the thrust of their story as well as in the desire to reflect the influences of previous writers in a certain literary tradition, but sometimes, ambition occasions overkill.
Existentialist tropes run through the characterisation. This is most obvious with The Maestro, is evident in the pace of the narrative itself and is glorified in the denouement. The meaninglessness of life as the antithesis of the immigrant experience is the basis of this cautionary tale.
At a time when the West is adjudged as being the shaper of African literature, this novel is a departure from the sensationalism of impoverished Africa – instead it interrogates the Western gore by showing, not telling, how African characters are broken by the whims and caprices of a well-governed society. Unfortunately, the wretched of the earth do not enjoy salvation when they transplant themselves to colder climes.
Here is an important novel about migration that negotiates to differentiate itself from tradition by approaching character development through an inventory of the minutest of details, psychological projections as well as existential concerns. The tempered voice of the author is remarkably American in inflection but the characters are deeply African, human.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

This Is Africa reviews The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician

Expats in Edinburgh – making a place your own

By Farai K. Dzvairo on August 15, 2016 — 

In his latest novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, Tendai Huchu follows the lives of three Zimbabwean immigrants as they strive for assimilation and a sense of place.

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 & 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.
Tendai Huchu at Africa Writes (Photo:RAS News and Events)
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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 & 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.


The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician is available in North America from Ohio University Press, in Nigeria and West Africa from Kachifo, in the United Kingdom from Parthian Books and in Zimbabwe and elsewhere from amaBooks.