The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu, 189pp. Ohio University Press, 2010. $16.95 paper, $7.99 kindle.
My first encounter with Zimbabwean writer and certified podiatrist–that’s right, podiatrist, Tendai Huchu was a few years ago when I found his short story “The Sale” in AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012), edited by the incomparable Nnedi Okorafor. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “what a wonderful imagination”. Huchu’s first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare (2010) is likewise, an extraordinary gift of literary genius. Stripped bare, it is a love story.
The novel, gorgeously executed, explores citizens’ love for their country and their willingness to fight for the right to live and love in it. This love and fight is found in the Zimbabwean war vets who are being exploited by a government minister, M__, as well as white Zimbabweans like Tina, whose land black Zimbabweans reclaimed under the Fast Track Land Reform Program.
It is about the love of parents for their children, even those who are begotten through the violence of rape as with the narrator, Vimbai, and her daughter, Chiwoniso. It is about what lengths parents will go to to save their children, sometimes–they truly believe–from themselves, as we see with Dumi, one of the novel’s main characters. It is about the different ways that human beings love.
The novel makes it clear that love takes many forms, each one as legitimate as another, although one may be forbidden by the law. As Vimbai’s philosophizing brother, Fongai, tells her, “There are two sets of laws, the ‘natural law’ and the ‘man-made law'”. The lesson that I came away with–and this is not to say that Huchu’s intention was to “teach” anything–is that one must follow his or her heart. Living one’s truth is all one has in the end.
That said, I must admit I felt a little let down by the novel’s ending, which, to me, pulls up just short of venturing all the way down the rabbit hole to explore what living one’s truth looks like for “ordinary” Zimbabweans (i.e. those who can’t flee to Europe), like those who Vimbai encounters queuing at the passport office. Anyone who has ever seen Call Me Kuchu (2012), a wonderful documentary from Uganda, the celebrated feature Brokeback Mountain (2005), or the equally poignant Boys Don’t Cry (1999), both from the U.S., understands the risks the poor take when they try to openly express their truths in all of their complexities.
Nonetheless, the accolades that Huchu has received for The Hairdresser of Harare are well-deserved. His follow-up novel, The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician: A Novel (2016) promises to be equally engaging.