BY JONATHAN AMID
With the arrival of his third novel, Unimportance, Thando Mgqolozana certainly announces himself on the big stage of South African literature. Along with contemporaries such as Niq Mhlongo and Kgebetli Moele and newcomers such as Songeziwe Mahlangu — other black male writers that have made many sit up and take notice — Mgqolozana is unafraid to tackle contentious or difficult topics, whether it be ritual circumcision in A Man Who is Not a Man (2009) or the more recent Hear Me Alone, a re-imagining of the Nativity story (2012). What sets Mgqolozana apart from the aforementioned writers, arguably, is his more-polished writing style, giving the surfaces of his diverse works an impressive richness of language matched by equally powerful thematic and formal preoccupations.
Unimportance is a fascinating, deeply funny and heartfelt meditation on the meaning and function of integrity within and beyond the realm of student politics. On the surface, it is deceptively simple (though never superficial), presenting a stream-of-consciousness narration by Zizi, a university student and SRC presidential candidate, of the crucial last 12 hours before he is to deliver a speech that could just make him the most important person on campus. As the novel progresses, Zizi emerges as clearly flawed but increasingly likeable. A squabble that he has with his girlfriend, Pamodi, triggers much soul-searching and reflection. Their altercation gets a little rough, and she tells him that she is going to the bathroom, only to disappear.
As Zizi searches for Pamodi, he ponders the potential ramifications of his behaviour in their relationship, weighs the significance and impact of past decisions and actions, and comes into contact with a variety of colourful, well-drawn and hyper-real individuals, who may or may not be in his corner come election time. During the novel’s conclusion, coming after the reader has been taken on an intimate yet kaleidoscopic journey into what it means to be a leader, Zizi stands before the entire university community to make a life-altering declaration.
Successfully vacillating between immediacy and reflection, slow-burning philosophical inquiry and quick-fire, intelligent dialogue, Mgqolozana’s prose reveals a sensitive understanding of the ways that human beings are products not only of their time and their relationships but also of their surroundings. As he explores the politics of gender, education and rural and urban divides, the young writer strikingly conjures up an entirely recognisable yet novel world of student politics, with the campus that reads as a microcosm of society at large. It might be considered commonplace to say that the personal is political and vice versa, but Unimportance has a canny way of convincing readers of this very fact while never coming across as a sermonising, single-thread allegory about the current malfeasance of the ANC government.Unimportance is ultimately a timely rejoinder to all those that offer criticism of the current democratic dispensation without interrogating the role they play as actors in their own, ineluctably political lives, and in society more broadly. The valence of the “political” as a term is expertly unpacked here for a reading (and voting) public (that should be) constituted of both young and old.