by Tendai Huchu
The Hairdresser of Harare is unique among books I have read in the contrast between its tone and content. The voice of the narrator, Vimbai, is light-hearted and gossipy as she goes about her life working in a hair salon, complaining about her co-workers and her maid and feuding with her family members. At the same time, Vimbai is living in a country that is falling apart. Inflation is so rampant that people can’t carry money in their wallets anymore, they have to carry it in stacks in their purses or wallets*. There are shortages of food and fuel. I listened to a BBC interview with the author and he said that this contrast between Vimbai’s attitude and the conditions of the country was intentional. He was trying to show how these things could come to be part of every-day life, just an accepted hassle to be dealt with. Overall, I found the contrast effective, though it didn’t work quite as well when the plot took a more serious turn.
The paragraph after this technically contains a spoiler, but I have a hard time really thinking of it as a spoiler because a) I knew about it before reading the book, b) almost all coverage of the book gives it away, and c) I actually think I would have liked the book less had I not known where this aspect of the story is going. But, technically, still a spoiler, so skip it if you prefer.
The plot of the novel revolves around the new hairdresser at the salon, Dumisani, who arrives and displaces Vimbai as the most requested hairdresser in the salon. The thing about Dumisani is that he’s perfect- handsome, smart, wealthy, charismatic, loves kids, star athelete, not to mention his remarkable talent for hairstyling. He is also gay. If I hadn’t known that to start with, I probably would have spent a lot of the book rolling my eyes at this romance-novel-hero of a character. Instead, I see it more as the Guess-Who’s-Coming-to-Dinner effect. When I watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (the original version with Katherine Hepburn) as a kid, I commented to my parents about how Sidney Poitier’s character seemed to be overly perfect. They explained to me that at the time the movie came out, a Black man marrying a White woman was so controversial that in order to portray the marriage so that it would be seen positively by the audience the black man couldn’t have any flaws. I think something similar is going on in The Hairdresser of Harare– in order to make the gay character as sympathetic as possible to readers in Zimbabwe, a country where homosexual behavior is both illegal and taboo, he has to be portrayed as perfect in every other way. I think it’s a reasonable decision for the author to make, but I also look forward to a day when that isn’t necessary.
One final comment, irrelevant to the story itself. The copy of the book which I borrowed from the library was published by Jacana Press in South Africa. Not only did they do a very nice job with the cover, they also used this very creative bar code with their logo. (A fun Google image search: “creative bar codes”)
* The book appears to be set sometime between 2003 and 2009 when Zimbabwe was undergoing hyperinflation with peak inflation rates somewhere between 11 million and 516 quintillion percent per year. The government started printing 100 billion dollar notes. One interesting aspect of The Hairdresser of Harare was seeing how people found ways to deal with this crazy level of inflation.