Nthikeng Mohlele, the author of the acclaimed Small Things and the recently released Rusty Bell, avoids the “territorial leprosy” that plagues reviews of South African fiction when weighing up Thando Mgqolozana’s third novel, Unimportance.
The Life and Times of Comrade Zizi
Taut, humorous, and wise in parts, Thando Mgqolozana’s third novel, Unimportance, is a deceptive and slippery read.
What the book isn’t preoccupied about, is the irritating and navel-gazing questions that, like determined houseflies, often plague post-1994 literature in South Africa: now that apartheid is supposed to be dead, what will writers and others practicing non-literary artistic disciplines explore? There are also whispers, conjectures, and perplexing peripheral debates on the quest for “The Great South African Novel”. What, in the name of all that is sacred, is that species: “The Great South African Novel”? Or the great American, German, British novel?
Even Charles Darwin would find it impossible to pin his The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection theory on current South African fiction writing, because of its variety and daring. Top of mind are Mike Nicol, Zukiswa Wanner, Lauren Beaukes, Sindiswa Magona, Paige Nick, Brent Meersman, Tom Eaton, Kgebetli Moele, Coetzee (Yes, JM), who with Diary of a Bad Year and more recently The Childhood of Jesus paused in flogging the apartheid carcass in favour of more universal and often “obscure” themes (including the true meaning of motherhood and the elusiveness of mathematical truths).
Coetzee’s guarded departure from allegorical permutations is echoed by a wave of literary genres that depart from apartheid inflicted explorations, genres not limited to crime, science fiction, literary and the erotic, that though reflective of South Africa history, consciously and perhaps rightfully steer clear of colonial and Verwoedian baggage.
Mgqolozana’s Unimportance, at face value, examines the benefits, contradictions and limitations of pursuing and wielding power – albeit be it in student politics. But student politics is nothing to be scoffed at. Some of our most distinguished thinkers and politicians cut their political teeth marching against academic exclusions and student integration during and after National Party madness. A sharp intellect and martyrdom, for instance, imprinted one Bantu Biko’s sociopolitical ideology – African/Black Consciousness in its essence, dynamic and inclusive in its execution – on our social consciousness.
It would seem, speculatively, that Mgqolozana and the current wave of South African fiction would show Darwin an impolite finger. Mgqolozana’s first person narrator, Mazizi, is like Cormac McCarthy’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men: morally conflicted, eagle-eyed, ponderous, an insider-outsider to personal and societal maladies, with no real power to enforce or control their outcomes. Despite this, both Mazizi and Bell hold positions of “importance”: Bell is a war veteran and law-enforcement officer and Mazizi is a respected and influential Student Representative Council comrade. Bell battles violence emanating from the Mexican drug trade; Mazizi battle inequality aftershocks, borne in part by Verwoedian lunacy.
That Mazizi, fearing arrest, spends more hours looking for Pamodi, a girlfriend he has assaulted, than writing and delivering an SRC-election-winning speech is in itself not earth-shattering or original (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and The Boys echo similar sentiments: the absurdity of human relations and meaning). The novelty lies in how Mgqolozana, in a mere 146 pages, avoids hammer-bashing readers with apartheid nausea, and chooses instead to trace the personal faultlines that define and distinguish each of his well-drawn characters: Pamodi, the sly girlfriend; the ambitious Comrade Sindane, who is diametrically opposed to Mazizi; the eccentric and weird and bordering on psychotic former roommate Madoda; the memorably foul-mouthed Minor Knowles from Ceres; the all-too-peaceful and drum banging Rastafarians; the faceless but prominent clientele of Condom Square.
That Mgqolozana can write is evident; but that he can write with pointed humour and a strong sense of place, hint at complex internal contradictions while presenting a weighty mix of Exhibit As – young love and campus sexuality, morality and religion; the clash and co-existence of varied belief systems and social trends – is testimony to a writer who, only in his early 30s, commands a powerful mix of narrative prowess and delightful attention to detail.
Only a fearless scribe would describe Aunt Rita’s private parts as “… a big sleepy eye”, or a heart or some elusive emotion as “a frog in my chest.” Reviewing Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow in the Financial Times, Justin Cartwright wrote: “Read it: it is hilarious, wonderfully perceptive, uncompromisingly ambitious and written by a great master of the English language.” Mr Mgqolozana is of course not Martin Amis or Cormac McCarthy, and doesn’t have to or aspire to be. What he is, is a formidable and important contributor to current literary preoccupations – so much so that Cartwright might have been reviewing Unimportance. It is a great pity that a strange form of territorial leprosy haunts reviews and analytical engagement with current South African writing – the healing of which will be placement and imposition of texts such as Unimportance in the shrines and boiler rooms of world literature.