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Vimbai is the best hairdresser in the hair salon where she works. As it is the best in Harare, it means that she's the best of all Zimbabwe. Her success comes from her conviction that 'Your client should leave the salon feeling like a white woman.'
Her status as queen-bee is challenged when a vacancy comes up and a young man applies for the job. Dumisani is good-looking, charming and, as Vimbai has to admit reluctantly, extremely talented. Instead of doing what the clients want he talks them into hairstyles which suit them best. First they're shocked, then pleased because he's always right.
Of course, Vimbai is jealous but she can't hold his talent against him, can she? When he tells her that he has no place to stay because of familial trouble, she takes him in as a lodger. She's inherited a house from one of her brothers in which she lives with her daughter. The girl is the result of an affair with a good-for-nothing, rich sugar daddy who cruises the streets of Harare looking for beautiful, naive girls to seduce. When they become pregnant, he leaves them.
Vimbai and Dumisani get closer - as is to be expected. He asks her to accompany him to his brother's wedding. She's overwhelmed by the reception of his extremely rich family. Why are they so friendly to her and her daughter? Why do they thank her? She starts dreaming that something good and lasting may develop between her and Dumisani. But she's repeatedly irritated by his friendly yet distant behaviour. I'll leave it here.
I know from tons of thrillers I've read that I'm not good at imagining where a plot is going. I've accepted that and wait patiently for the ending. (Only very, very rarely do I peep at the last pages). Yet, in the case of the Hairdresser of Harare it's so obvious what's going on that even I found it out fairly soon!
The story is told by Vimbai in the first person perspective and it must be said that she's even dumber than I usually am. She notices nothing. She's not a woman of the world. Although she's gone through trouble having a child out of wedlock and being dumped by the father and by her family because of fights about inheriting the house, she hasn't acquired insight into human nature. She's still the naive girl at heart she was when she was picked up. Sometimes it's a bit too much for the reader. Several times I wanted to shake her and shout, "Don't you see?" When the truth dawns on her at last, her impulse is to seek revenge for the humiliation she feels.
Of course, there wouldn't be a story if she saw through Dumisani from the start. Well, let's accept the way Tendai Huchu has constructed it. But obviously he was afraid that Vimbai's naivety would be a bit boring if he kept it up throughout the whole story. So he decided to interrupt the flow every now and then and put in sentences like this: Little did I know then what that meant. Or: Later I learnt the hard way that..., etc. This is a cheap literary device to create tension. The editor should have slapped the author's fingers.
Another reason for doing this are the insertions of words in a language I don't understand. It's Shona, one of the 16 official languages of Zimbabwe. I've found that out through google but not what the words mean. To be honest, I don't care. Should I ever feel the urge to learn a fifth foreign language, it won't be Shona, of this I'm sure. But since when do I have to have google running alongside when reading a novel? Admittedly, I, a German, am not a member of the target readership. I have background knowledge of Britain's colonial past, but no feelings for it. It's not my history. The story is targeted at Zimbabweans who can read English and British readers, of course. Considering how many colonies there were with thousands of different languages all told, how many British readers know what the following expressions mean: Makadini henyu / Maswera sei / Taswera maswerawo? If only writers would abstain from sprinkling their books with words of foreign languages. It doesn't create atmosphere and local colour but is a nuisance. I can't accuse Tendai Huchu of showing off because he is from Zimbabwe. What he does is just plain silly and annoying.
In an interview Tendai Huchu maintains that storytelling is an end in itself. "I wrote The Hairdresser because I wanted to tell a story." He seems to be amused by foreigners who want to read more into it. "The Zimbabwean reader recognises it purely as a work of fiction, and I doubt attaches any great importance to the book apart from its value as a piece of entertainment." It's true that the current political situation of Zimbabwe isn't a topic even though Mugabe's wife and one of his female ministers are clients at the hairdresser's.
But no author writing a realistic novel can avoid real life creeping in. The so-called realia are the flesh which covers the skeleton, the mere plot. A realistic novel is set somewhere, in a city or a landscape. There are changing weather conditions. The protagonists move from A to B. How do they move? Which means of transportation do they use? The feel of a novel is certainly different if they drive expensive German cars or move along in a mule-drawn cart. They communicate. How do they do this? Thrillers written in the last decade have a different feel from older ones. Sherlock Holmes had to send messenger boys to the post office to send telegrammes. Nowadays every detective has got a mobile phone. Know what I mean?
What I learn about Zimbabwe without the author wanting to teach me about is what makes the novel worth reading for me. It's mentioned twice that the unemployment rate is 90%. Is that possible? I checked on google where I found that Zimbabwe is at the top of the list of countries with high unemployment rates. Why the country hasn't already had to pack in for good is a mystery for me. Although the political situation can't be compared to the one in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) in the least bit, how people organise their daily lives and cope with permanent emergency reminded me of what I know from my relatives. Besides the (not working) economy of the state there's one of the people. One hand washes the other. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Without connections you're lost. The queues when basic goods are sold. The spirit of the people who despite the bleak reality don't give up and find opportunities to enjoy themselves.
The novel isn't outrageously funny, but occasionally humour glimpses through. When Vimbai opens her own salon she says, "The salon really took off in the new year. I figured since the country's average life expectancy was 37, I would concentrate on the young and the beautiful."
Why did I order this novel from Amazon for my Kindle for 99 p? The news that Mugabe had just been "elected" as president for the seventh time must have influenced me when I was browsing. I'm glad I did. All in all it's a good and recommendable read.
P.S. Haare is the German word for hair. I know that this is the British dooyoo site, but when the idea for the title struck me, I couldn't resist.