Parthian Books, 333 pp., £8.99
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 The Maestro is intensely withdrawn, representing the ‘outsider’ who feels and sees everything deeply on another level.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.