The Russian Barber of Harare

by Andy Kozlov

We are sure you’ve heard about sustainable development. International NGOs, government programs, eco-friendly campaigns. The idea that a novel about the emotional vicissitudes of a Harare hairdresser can be a narrative of social development is probably something you’ve heard less often.  Tendai Huchu‘s novel The Hairdresser of Harare that hit the shelves in 2010 is a good example of the fiction of development.

As a group of academics from the LSE have argued, “not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential”.

The Hairdresser of Harare is one of those texts that speak out on contemporary life in Zimbabwe and make this nation surface on the mental map of the world. In addition to that, this 189-page work of fiction resonates with those

Tendai Huchu and his first novel “The Hairdressser of Harare”

Zimbabweans like its author himself (who is now based in Scotland) dispersed across the planet. What the diaspora might find fascinating about this book published by the Harare-based Weaver Press is the sense of nostalgie for the homeland. A chance to come back to the “packed streets of the city”— people marching in different directions. Being able to look around and enjoy the careful descriptions of Harare, “here a woman carries a basket laden with fruit on her head and there a man with a bicycle pump walks along whistling a tune by Oliver Mtukudzi”.

The story is told by Vimbai, a star hairdresser at a salon in the Avenues, whose career and eventually whole life get challenged and twisted by the arrival of a new employee named Dumi. He is cute, he is hard-working and… he has a secret. Lots of them, in fact. Otherwise, why would a graduate of  St. George’s look for a job at a hair salon? Why would he ask a township girl Vimbai to move to her place while his family is used to hosting the likes of the President’s wife?

As Fungai Machirori, a novel’s reviewer for The Standard noted this book is “a refreshing addition to Zimbabwe’s growing body of post-2000 literature. And by the time you are done reading, you too might be left with this debatable question, “Just who is the hairdresser of Harare?” Here is our reading of it. When he first put pen to paper, Tendai Huchu proclaimed in a “boisterous voice” that he was “the rightful heir to Dostoevsky”. So it is interesting to look at his work through the lens of a 1990s Russian cinema epic The Barber of Siberia set in the 19th-century Russia.

Yana Hashamova, a Russian film critic who explores this film in her book Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West in Post-Soviet Film claims that after the fall of the Soviet Union Russia struggled to establish itself as a unique nation against the background of the intense globalization. This identity search was partly done through the medium of film. It is permeated by the question “Who are we? Where do we go?”. Hashamova compares Russian identity formation with the unease of the adolescent forced to seek self-determination. Admiration for all things Western at first—then a shift to loathing them, showing off the greatness of the Russian heritage. The Barber of Siberia might be wrong historically but there is one thing you can be sure of—it places Russia in the heads of the masses, makes us reflect, makes us debate.

Zimbabweans and Russians may be distant geographically but they are certainly in the same ‘society in transition’ boat. One factoid to look at is life expectancy. According to the recent Human Development Report done annually by UNDP, an UN agency, in nine countries (out of 135 in the sample) life expectancy fell below 1970 levels: six in Africa (including Zimbabwe) and three in the former Soviet Union (including Russia).

The Hairdresser of Harare, through its treatment of the controversial issues of gender, politics and vivid descriptions of  the 2008 economic meltdown, is certainly doing a better job in representing central issues relating to development than your usual policy research. And for those living in Harare, it makes them reflect, discuss and simply enjoy one of the few novels on life in this city. There’s only one thing left to say: “Creatives out there, hey, churn out more fiction to help  develop our real lives”!

Tendai Huchu with a copy of Hello Harare! magazine that carries a review of “The Hairdresser of Harare” by Andy Kozlov

A part of this review appeared in the May issue of the Hello Harare! magazine. We sent a copy of the magazine to Tendai Huchu in Scotland.

This is what he replied:

I’ve just received the copy of Hello Harare that u sent me… Thank you very much. It is an excellent publication and I’m enjoying reading the magazine which takes me home.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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7 thoughts on “The Russian Barber of Harare”

  1. This is fabulous reviewing, Andy. I like the Russian connection. Maybe you need to read Marechera’s works (if you haven’t). He likes his Dostoyevky and Bhaktin among other satirists. The HH almost struck me as the best piece out of Zim, almost. As a Classicist, I enjoy the use of Plato and Diogenes in the Philosophy circle of Vimbai’s brother. I am sure that Huchu read far and wide and synthesized his data to come up with something completely new. I believe there are a lot of manuscripts waiting on the sidelines.
    MM

    1. This is the connection Prof. Anthony Chennells from Arrupe College mentioned in a recent correspondence with us. “Marechera is often praised because he was widely read and was not shy about showing the extent of his reading. The only trouble is very few Zimbabweans have been given a chance tor read outside African/Zimbabwe canons and therefore have little way of judging for themselves. So if for no other reason that makes your Dostoevsky parallel valuable.”

  2. HERE IS WHAT TENDAI HUCHU wrote to me:
    Thank you for such a thoughtful review. I fully agree with you about the value of fiction as a more accessible way of representing “central issues relating to development”. Though I am afraid that the novel has seems to have limited value in terms of stimulating debate in contemporary Zimbabwe.
    The Russians, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Lemontov, Chernychevsky and Goncharov played an instrumental part in my early literary development. This is because 18th-19th century Russia has many interesting parallels to Zimbabwe today.
    In terms of life expectancy and economic development that era in Russian novels seemed to mirror the Zimbabwe I left in the last decade. Notice how the incidence of consumption (tuberculosis) among the lower classes has strong similarities with the AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe today. The social stratification of the haves and the have nots in Russia then also closely mirrors our Zimbabwean experience.
    There was also debate in the Russian novel about Western Ideas and Influence in that era which also mimics the political struggles Zimbabwe experiences. Russian authors at the time were also exploring the relationship between the state and the individual, democracy or autocracy. If you read Tolstoy’s Resurrection the Land Question is explored in ways that are relevant to Zimbabwe today.
    I could go on and on about these parallels that keep popping and one almost wishes our leaders too read these works. I have no pretensions about The Hairdresser of Harare in terms of it’s ability to effect meaningful change in society but I must thank you for your thoughtful review. Though I have not yet watched The Russian Barber I will try to get hold of a copy.

    Tendai

  3. I loved this review, Andy. I, too, think that fiction can be a better window into how we love our lives, and the places we live them, than the prose of non-fiction.

  4. I loved this review, Andy. I, too, think that fiction can be a better window into how we live our lives, and the places we live them, than the prose of non-fiction.

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