[Paper presented at the European Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (EACLALS) Conference Performing the Urban, University of Oviedo, Spain April 2017]
Tendai Huchu’s novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, like the model on which it is loosely based, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons, tells three inter-connected stories. The main characters are three Zimbabwean men living in Edinburgh. The Maestro, a young, white Zimbabwean combines a job at Tesco’s supermarket with the activities of running, reading and thinking in a quasi-solitary existence. The Magistrate is a middle-aged man living with his wife and daughter. The Mathematician, Farai, is a research student from an affluent family who lives and socialises with other young people. Each man walks, runs through, journeys through or dreams the city while remembering his past life in Zimbabwe so that the city is transformed into a text that possesses the characters and the reader.
|Tendai Huchu (Caine Prize)|
This simple transformation, though, may be deceptive. In an interview, Huchu has said that he “envisioned The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician as a book of illusions, which, while it presents itself as one thing, constantly undermines that position” (Huchu in Cousins and Dodgson-Katiyo 2016, 203). He adds that he intended to take readers on a “wild goose chase”, dragging them in the wrong direction to show how the “political and ideological world is ‘inescapable’” (209).
In this paper, I argue that the city and the past are both performed in the novel through fragmentation. Fragments – descriptions, stories, memories, emotions - either connect, creating more than is at first visible, or they fail to connect, and leave gaps, absences, even relics.
Writing on memory, story and space in The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau suggests that like birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, “memory produces in a place that does not belong to it”. Memory, he argues, “derives its interventionary force from its very capacity to be altered – unmoored, mobile, lacking any fixed position” (1988, 86). We create stories when we walk through spaces in which “unmoored” memories settle. De Certeau further claims that:
“Stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris…. things extra and other (details and excesses coming from elsewhere) insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order ….The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order.” (107)
I’ll give two examples of how this works in the novel. In the opening pages, the Magistrate goes on his ritual morning walk round the city, confident that “ his mental side [is] free to wander far and wide, to traverse through the past, present and future, free from limits, except the scope of his own imagination.” He can adversely compare the cold, distant sun in Edinburgh with the “all-powerful and magnificent” sun in Bindura, the small town in Zimbabwe where he lived and worked (Huchu 2014, 9). However, memory does not always work in the way he might want it to. In Holyrood Park, looking over the roofs across the city, “he felt like a colossus striding over the narrow world” but melancholy soon sets in:
“Right then the saudade hit him pretty bad, and, he could see Bindura, the low prospect, the giant mine chimneys in the distance, but the memory was like a flicker from an old videotape that had been dubbed over. He could only hold the image in his mind for a brief second before it vanished into the mist hovering over the Forth.” (13)
Similarly, when the Maestro listens to the roar of traffic outside his flat, “images from the past … [try] to stream into the present.” He thinks the traffic “sounded like a river and, if he closed his eyes, he could see it, a wide river, powerful like the Zambezi”. But “he could only hold this picture in his mind a short while, then it vanished” (134).
Kizito Muchemwa, writing on the Zimbabwean writer Brian Chikwava’s London-set novel, Harare North, claims that the “exilic experience is one of retrieving fragments from memory to re-assemble home” (2010, 141). In Huchu’s novel, this emphasis on fragmentation, ellipses and transience co-exists with larger stories and histories which weave in and out of the narrative. Moreover, the punching through and tearing open of the imposed order reveal the faultlines and contradictions within these larger stories.
One of the stories is the discourse propagated by President Mugabe and his party ZANU-PF that Zimbabwe is still fighting an anti-colonial war and that only those who accept the primacy of the liberation struggle have the right to inherit and rule Zimbabwe. In this discourse, those who have left the country to come to Britain are represented as colonial lackeys and emasculated victims of racism. President Mugabe in a speech given on Independence Day 2006 mocked Zimbabweans who work in the care industry: according to Mugabe, “They are letting the country down by going to England where they are looked down on and given dirty menial jobs, they scratch the backs of old people in homes in England” (“Zimbabweans in the diaspora” 2006). This feeds into other stories around the ways in which Zimbabweans see themselves in Britain. The sociologist Dominic Pasura, drawing on interviews he carried out among Zimbabweans in England (although not Scotland), argues that Zimbabweans “give a variety of meanings to their conditions and experiences in the diaspora” (2010, 1458). For some, being in the UK is a form of reverse colonization (we’re here because you were there). For others, their time in the UK can be described in the biblical terms of Babylon and Egypt, a period of exile and suffering. It can also be compared to wenela, the historical migrant system in which Zimbabwean men went to South Africa to work under bad conditions for poor pay. And, in some cases, the UK can also be home, the place where they have now legally settled.
The Magistrate’s story traverses the diverse meanings that Pasura’s respondents gave to their experiences in Britain. He suffers in exile. He wants to return to Zimbabwe where he had an important, respectable role and help to rebuild the country. He keeps “this hope alive in his heart, a warm ember cocooned by despair” (Huchu 2014, 28) but also fears that he is ‘long forgotten, a useless relic from the past” (94). Embarrassed because his wife is working and he isn’t, a condition which Pasura suggests is common among older Zimbabwean men in the diaspora, the Magistrate takes an agency job in a care home which for him is demeaning, menial work below his status. His friend, Alfonso, arranges it for him, telling him that work for immigrants in the UK is “a system … [of] voluntary slavery”, like wenela. Alfonso suggests there is no point in the Magistrate applying for legal work because, given media representations of Zimbabwe, people will ask: “‘How can you practice law here when you couldn’t even preserve the rule of law in your own country?’” (32). The care-home work is physically demanding but that isn’t what most upsets the Magistrate. He remembers the backbreaking work he did in his grandfather’s fields when he was young. However, this, he is certain, is “a different kind of pain”:
“In the fields with the soft earth beneath your feet and the open sky above, you hardly felt the strain. It was massaged by the soothing voices of family, banter, the gossip about the neighbours, and the satisfaction that your labour was meaningful. There was nothing like watching your seedlings grow, tending them until they matured. It was different from this, this cultivating the field of death, the living dead groaning in their cots.” (53)
Culturally and environmentally, the Magistrate finds it difficult to adapt to a way of life which is different from the communal life he remembers in Zimbabwe and which is one of which he disapproves. He can’t find satisfaction in caring for old people who, as he sees it, have been abandoned by the relatives who should look after them. Walking to work and seeing that “everything ahead of him was a mixture of stone, mortar and glass, with hedges and the green foliage of trees poking out in what spaces they could find’, he misses the sense of expansiveness he experienced at home: “The absence of space he felt was because everything here was owned, subdivided, surveyed, for sale, catalogued for use” (74). The contrast between the Scottish city and Zimbabwean open space is, to some extent, nostalgic, even illusory, but it represents the Magistrate’s idea of home and his belief that he is now a captive in an alien land.
The sense of unbelonging is heightened by another larger story, the way the West sees Zimbabwe. The Mathematician, Farai, can handle this. He knows the key words most of the Western media use: “DESPOT, BASKET CASE, DICTATORSHIP, ONCE PROMISING, WHITE FARMERS” (85) and so on. He listens to Fox News: He “trusts Fox in the same way he trusts the ZBC [Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation]. His awareness of the subtle distortions, the bending of facts to fit certain angles, means he feels safer watching it than he does with the so-called objective news channels” (151). Farai doesn’t fit into Pasura’s diaspora definitions. He intends to finish his PhD and return to Zimbabwe to start a business. He plays the Zimbabwe stock exchange and he believes Zimbabwe’s economic problems are “very minor from a grand historical perspective. Every nation goes through these cycles” (189). However, the Magistrate feels differently. He is pained by the way Western media represent his country:
“The country never featured when there was real news. It seemed to him that Zimbabwe was a filler used when something about dystopian Africa was needed for comic relief. … His country ticked all the boxes for a sensational African story: add one dictator, a dash of starving kids, a dollop of disease, sprinkle a little corruption, stir in a pot of random, incomprehensible violence, and voilà, the stereotypical African dish.” (27-28)
Yet, although he says he wants his body to be returned to Zimbabwe after his death, the Magistrate does start to settle in Edinburgh even if only hesitantly and without any sense of commitment or consistent movement forward. He decides that he wants “to make a map of the city using music to pin it to his memory” (98) but in the map he sees “a city that he dared not call home” (261). When he visits the Law Chambers “the old masonry held no memories for him and, in his despair, he failed to see that, even without music, he could and was in fact creating new ones one brick at a time” (207). He finds meaning in becoming involved with the local branch of the Zimbabwean opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), although he fails to see that Alfonso is a government agent who has infiltrated the branch. Perhaps most optimistically, when his teenage daughter, Chenai, gives birth to a daughter, Ruvarashe, the rukuvhute (umbilical cord) is buried in the family’s Edinburgh garden “binding Ruvarashe and, by extension, themselves to this place” (241). Thus, in the person of the Magistrate alone, there are different, seemingly contradictory meanings to what it means to live outside your country and make somewhere else your home.
Also embedded in the novel, though, are discourses around Scotland. The novel was first published in 2014, the year of the Scottish independence referendum, which was narrowly won by those who wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, in the 2016 referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave, the UK as a whole voted to leave while Scotland voted to remain by a large majority. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, the Scottish National Party (SNP) now argues again for Scotland to be independent, to have political autonomy, to have the right to define its own identity as a nation – demands commensurate with those made by the nationalists before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 and re-iterated since in Mugabe’s rallying cry, “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” (see Willems 2013). In this discourse, Scotland represents itself as a colonized country and appears to have forgotten that it was once a colonizer. This puzzle is intriguingly framed in the questions Silke Stroh asks in her recent book Gaelic Scotland and the Colonial Imagination: “Is Scottish political and cultural nationalism similar to anticolonial resistance overseas? Or are such comparisons no more than Scottish patriotic victimology, attempting to mask complicity in the British empire and justify initiatives to secede from the United Kingdom?” (2017, 12) There is no doubt that, historically, the Scots were colonizers. The historian Andrew Thompson expresses this complicity starkly: “Of all the peoples of the United Kingdom, it is the Scots’ contribution to the British Empire that stands out as disproportionate. They were the first peoples of the British Isles to take on an imperial mentality, and possibly the longest to sustain one” (quoted in MacKenzie and Devine 2011, 19).
In the novel, Farai and two friends are sitting near the National Monument of Scotland which is also known by various nicknames including Edinburgh’s Shame. The monument was built between 1826 and 1828 and is dedicated to the sailors and soldiers who died during the Napoleonic wars. However, it was left unfinished because of lack of private subscription; hence Edinburgh’s Shame. The friends sit:
“in the shade of Edinburgh’s shame. … On Calton Hill, the city’s delusion of being the Athens of the North lingers in hard stone. Farai thinks the monument a thing of beauty. There is something in the unfinished acropolis, a ruin before it became a ruin, eaten by moss on the lower fringes which he finds compelling. Stacey is indifferent. He thinks her perspective is tainted by history, while he, the outsider, can see things with a little more clarity. The city’s near universal rejection of the monument perhaps lies in the embarrassing fact that it was modeled on the Parthenon, with grand ambitions. Almost the same embarrassment the Scots feel about the ’78 Argentina World Cup debacle. Both share the same aetiology, a small nation with overinflated ambitions.” (Huchu 2014, 79)
Stacey’s perspective may be tainted by history but the representation of Farai’s mocking of Scotland is certainly informed by the contradictions in Scottish history. Edinburgh, or the Athens of the North, was the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century. However, as Cairns Craig (2011) has argued, the Enlightenment was partly the outcome of Scottish migration, with Scots in America and Canada creating and disseminating many of the ideas associated with the Scottish Enlightenment. Moreover, the philosopher David Hume, one of the key figures in the Enlightenment, wrote an infamous footnote to his essay “Of National Characters” which begins “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites” (1987, 208). Thus, there are contradictions in the idea that Scotland has a progressive, enlightened history separate from British colonialism and imperialism and the quoted passage brings this out.
Stroh is right when she states that Scotland has an “ambiguous historical position as both intra-British colonized and overseas colonizer” (2017, 249). Nevertheless, as part of the argument for independence, the SNP represents Scotland as outward-looking, pro-European, non-racist, welcoming to immigrants. A novel structured around the experiences of three Zimbabwean immigrants will, to some extent, be read in the light of this self-fashioning. In the novel, on New Year’s Eve, a skinhead grabs Farai and asks him where he’s from. When Farai nervously says Zimbabwe, the response he gets is: “’Nah, you alright, pal. It’s those English bastards ah cannae stand” (Huchu 2014, 237). Edinburgh is internationally known as a city of festivals, literature, culture and architecture and the novel plays with this view of Edinburgh. Farai sits in a quaint café “which became famous when some woman wrote a children’s book about wizards” (22) and where an old man can be mistaken for that famous Rhodesian-born Edinburgh resident Alexander McCall Smith.
Edinburgh is also, though, a city of crime, poverty, drug-taking and AIDS and the novel represents this facet of Edinburgh too. Farai notes that toilet attendants in clubs are always African immigrants: they “have cornered this aspect of the British night-time economy” (238). The Maestro lives in a flat described as “shanky” or sleazy, on the kind of estate where, according to a police officer, the neighbours won’t know if you die or go missing. He chooses to run through parts of the city where there are run-down estates:
“Though the Maestro was grateful for the comforts and protection of the city, he wasn’t ready to give in to its seductions and charms, and to love it. So he sought to observe closely the dark underbelly, the grotesque sector that never made it to postcards in tourist shops.” (110)
Towards the end of his life, he gives away his possessions and spends months living on the streets and in the parks of Edinburgh. He sees buses passing on North Bridge and knows that a “dark force there attracted suicides who jumped and splattered on the roof of Waverley Station” (217). He visits many cemeteries. He finds that Dalry cemetery is overgrown and neglected, with rubbish strewn everywhere and some of the gravestones “so worn that the names were no longer legible. Time had erased them from history” (215). Running along this graveyard is Coffin Lane, incidentally the location for a murder in Ian Rankin’s detective novel Let It Bleed. In the famous Greyfriars cemetery, the Maestro sees “the ancient vaults and tombs, some of which were protected by iron railings to deter the resurrection men who’d made their living selling fresh corpses to the medical school” (216). Here again, it’s a paradox that Enlightenment practice, finding out more about the human body through dissection, is reliant on the grim crime of body snatching. Ironically, after the Maestro’s death, no one is sure what to do with his body. Is it Scotland’s responsibility to dispose of it or Zimbabwe’s? Should he be repatriated to Zimbabwe or cremated in Scotland?
Within the “planned city” of Edinburgh, there is “a ‘metaphorical’ or ‘mobile’ city” (De Certeau 1988, 110). The Scottish David Livingstone, whom Craig refers to as “the iconic figure of Victorian imperialism” (2011, 96) wrote about and mapped parts of Southern Africa in his book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. He also attempted to change and name what he saw, planting a garden in an island, now named Livingstone Island, on Victoria Falls. Tendai Huchu, a Zimbabwean living in Scotland, writes of Zimbabwean lives within a very detailed topography of Edinburgh, in order to tell stories which allow us to see what the nationalist poet, Hugh McDiarmid, refers to as “all the loose ends of Scotland” (quoted in Huchu 2014, epigraph). This could be seen as a colonization in reverse, which goes beyond what we used to call ‘writing back’ to show how Scotland and Edinburgh can be possessed by people who weren’t born there. Towards the end of the novel, a Zimbabwean government official says to Alfonso, “I take it you left no loose ends?” (270). One could argue that the three Zimbabwean stories have reached an ending, although not, I think, closure given that they are open to interpretation. We have been taken on “a wild goose chase”; what we thought was a postmodern comedy of everyday life has turned out to be a story about murder, intrigue and mystery.
The novel finishes in London, so perhaps there is also an ending to the Scotland story. However, I don’t think this is the case. The Scotland story in my view now has an afterlife and it is this afterlife that empowers the reader. I return to de Certeau again. He argues that the reader:
“insinuates into another person’s text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation: he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it …. this production is also an “invention” of the memory. Words become the product or outlet of silent histories…. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces. A different world slips into the author’s place.” (1988,xxi)
As I listen to debates on Scottish independence, memories of phrases and passages from The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician come into my mind; as I reread the novel, I remember fragments of discourse about contemporary politics. When I read the words used to describe Farai’s outsider view of Edinburgh’s Shame, I insert into it a world perceived by my outsider view of Zimbabwe including the stone city of Great Zimbabwe known as the Zimbabwe Ruins, hyperinflation, over-ambition, and either anger at, or shame of, being seen as a failed nation. Muchemwa argues that “exile challenges writers to reconfigure geographies of identity … and contest ideologies of place” (2010: 135). This is what The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician does in relation to Zimbabwe but also in relation to Scotland. The Maestro preferred to read several books “in parallel, hoping that this way of reading would make it easier for him to see the cross connections he sought between each universe” (Huchu 2014, 171-2). I think the reader can see some of the cross connections in this one book.
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Stroh, Silke. Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination: Anglophone Writing from 1600 to 1900. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 2017.
Willems, Wendy. “Zimbabwe Will Never Be a Colony Again: Changing Celebratory Styles and Meanings of Independence.” Anthropology Southern Africa 36.1-2 (2013): 22-33.
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(reproduced with the permission of the author)
Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo was formerly Head of English at Newman University and Dean of the School of Arts and Letters at Anglia Ruskin University. She has research interests in African literature, particularly Zimbabwean and Somali, and contemporary women's writing. She is co-editor of Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women's Writing (with Gina Wisker) and Emerging Perspectives on Yvonne Vera (with Helen Cousins).