I first went to Edinburgh, Scotland to visit Tendai Huchu, with whom I had been buddies on social media in 2012. He came to pick me at Waverley rail station situated in a steep, narrow valley between the medieval Old Town and the 18th century New Town and we would traverse between the two.
Scotland’s capital city is a place of culture and literature. The heart of the city, a World Heritage Site, is packed with fascinating buildings and a remarkable history. The famous castle sits proud on its rock at the top of the Old Town, a warren of medieval streets and alleyways sweeping down to Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament at the foot of the Royal Mile. And there is Holyrood Park, surely one of the most dramatic city parks I have seen, with the mini-mountain of Arthur’s Seat at its heart.
The opening of Huchu’s new book, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, vividly reminds me of this visit. In hindsight, it is as if when we walked we were rehearsing some of the scenes in the book. With the turn of every page Edinburgh becomes real.
The story is told in three voices which are emotionally distant, ruminative, and sometimes intellectual. Its principal characters are known by the titles of their current pursuits or former professions. Collectively the trio has some absences to fill, personal histories to recover.
Set during the decade of crisis, the novel zooms into the too often agonising life of Zimbabwean emigrants and also provides some valuable insight into the political and economic issues currently afflicting Zimbabwe.
Bindura and Edinburgh simultaneously move in the magistrate’s mind. Like many emigrants, he becomes an “in-between” person who does not belong here nor there. He remembers the man he was before Edinburgh took away his dignity.
Somehow it is the magistrate’s wanderings and their connections to personal histories — both his own and those of the people he meets that form the driving narrative, allowing him to reflect on his adopted country of Scotland and the Zimbabwe of his youth.
He is the character around which the whole narrative revolves – his dysfunctional family, his dalliance with opposition politics and his emasculation dominate most of the story. Indirectly he connects the other characters in the book by association.
Also embedded in the narrative are references to old Zimbabwean music. Music is used to map memories of identity and being. After all nostalgia has a playlist. In fact, Zimbabwean music is used to connect the narrator’s past with his present.
Immigration and exile are not new literary subjects, but Huchu’s treatment of them has a quiet clarity and surprising force. In fact, the book reads so much like a sequel to Brian Chikwava’s Harare North – the overseas territory of Zimbabwe is not limited to London but also extended to Edinburgh.
Edinburgh has a sinister side. Political turncoats and opportunists befriend the Zimbabweans, pretend to be a political agitators yet spy for the Zimbabwe government. In the Zimbabwean political discourse there is currently a rhetoric war between zvipfukuto, corrosive insects known as weevils, and gamatox, a poisonous pesticide.
After the walk about we stopped at a bookshop, I don’t recall its name, but it was a bargain bookshop that Huchu frequented. He bought me a copy of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World is an unsettling, loveless and even sinister place. In its patient, cumulative way, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician paints a startlingly dim picture of Zimbabwe’s present moment. And the past is no refuge.