Book review – The importance of Unimportance

2014-08-04 16:58

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Unimportance (Jacana Media)

Thando Mgqolozana

144 pages

R130 from

Thando Mgqolozana’s latest offering, Unimportance, is a book that directs South African literature towards a new and important trajectory.

The story ­details 12 hours in the life of Zizi, a hopeful student representative council president.

Despite having the support of the majority and a sterling public record, the night before his nomination speech a conflict with his girlfriend and her sudden disappearance threatens to derail all his plans.

Although the book is set on a university campus, this is not a simple story about academics, hormones and youth.

Mgqolozana crafts a gripping tale about political transition, gender identities and student politics in a story that does not stereotype or dismiss, but allows its characters to emerge in layers.

In this way, it makes them ­relatable to a ­diverse audience.

Mgqolozana is an elegant, strategic writer.

Throughout the novel, I am not sure whether I am meant to like or dislike Zizi.

He is presented as a level-headed student leader who genuinely cares about his organisation and constituents, and yet his interactions with women and other politicians come across as arrogant and dismissive.

In this, Mgqolozana offers salient commentary about the relationship between the political and personal (or the seen and unseen) aspect of political leaders; and he makes this ­ dynamic understandable by personifying it in one individual.

He also describes the complex relationships between student organisations, communist parties and the youth league, and his words seem to echo events in our ­recent political history.

Amid this seriousness, the story is peppered with adventures and incidents that lighten what could overall become quite a heavy read.

We are ­introduced to a group of Rastafarians who drum through the night to bring down “Babylon”, white students who are described as wholly apathetic, and a wonderfully self-styling spectrum of black characters – from rural, township and inner city contexts, reflecting different symptoms of the somewhat ­recent apartheid diseases, and different ideas about the future.

This kind of writing propels South African literature forward by crafting unique characters.

Zizi cannot reconcile himself with the cynicism of the “Model-C types”, whose walk and talk suggests obliviousness to the country’s troubled past.

Similarly, he admonishes the students from the township, who he says ­believe that “making it” involves distancing themselves from the township.

The title, Unimportance, holds ­ increasing gravity as the book progresses.

Zizi’s quest to reclaim his reputation and respect comes from a fear of being rendered unimportant.

But, in telling his story and laying himself bare to fellow students and the reader, Zizi reclaims his importance, not derived from politics, but from his sincerity and candour.

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