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Reviewed: The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma by Chris Wadman, Jonathan Ball

The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert KambazumaIn September, the residents of the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo were ordered to flush their toilets at precisely 7.30pm. This synchronised blast would, it was hoped, unblock the waste silting up the aging sewers.

This curious event would have appealed to Chris Wadman, a connoisseur of Zimbabwean oddities. The Puck-ish Wadman, a lawyer and, like John van der Ruit, a product of Michaelhouse school, has drawn on both anecdote and newspaper reports to fashion this mercilessly funny satire of Zimbabwe today.

If George Makana Smith’s The Raw Man took the Zimbabwean story to new literary heights, then Cuthbert has achieved a new benchmark in brilliant political satire from this region. It is wildly comical, but as in all the best satire, deeply unnerving.

The book opens with one Teddington Chiwafambira bowling along at the wheel of a rickety bus, en route from Bulawayo to Harare. He has been hired to transport a batch of mental patients from one asylum to another, and he’s fed up. Hyperinflation is decimating his salary and the only way to survive, he believes, is to escape over the border to South Africa. For that he needs a million dollars.

Pulling over at a remote village to allow his passengers a break, he finds a well-dressed group of people stranded there. Money changes hands, the mental patients are abandoned and suddenly Teddington’s dream of Egoli is within his grasp. Except that the rescued passengers turn out to be members of the opposition MDC, and when he unwittingly dumps them at the Harare asylum he becomes a hero in the eyes of the authorities.

This is one of the most amusing sequences in the book, as the MDC politicians try and persuade the hospital staff that they are not, in fact, lunatics. The matron orders them to be medicated, and when she learns there are no drugs left, she prescribes a packet of cigarettes each to keep them quiet. The list of sources at the back of the book shows that this did, in fact, happen in Harare some years ago.

Teddington is rewarded with a farm, but when that’s run down he and his cronies turn their sights to a productive, verdant spread belonging to a children’s home. The staff members are desperate to protect the home and call in the “Doctor” of the title, Cuthbert Kambazuma, sorcerer, goblin-catcher and shameless charlatan, who pulls off a spectacular defence.

I loved the deadpan, faintly Victorian chapter headings: “Colonel Reginald Threscothic and his Wife Marie Discover the Infant Thomas in a Guava Tree”; “A New Suit from George Smith Men’s Clothing for Eight Million Dollars”, and “The Spirit of the Late Jimmy Moverley-Smith Lives on Inside his Hearing Aids”.

There’s a searing sadness that underpins the biting wit: the elderly couple driven from their farm, for example, or the woman who dies because of the lack of equipment at the state hospital. Wadman balances it all like a seasoned writer, segueing easily from mania to poignancy, from outlandish avarice to gentle humanness. It’s an audacious debut and I, for one, can’t wait to read more from this brilliant new author.

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