Jane Rosenthal on the urban intelligentsia in new novels from Perfect Hlongwane and Thando Mgqolozana.
JOZI by Perfect Hlongwane (UKZN Press)
Anyone who has lived in Johannesburg will know it has a wonderful climate, that early mornings are often beautiful. Surprisingly, Perfect Hlongwane often invokes these, along with an underlying faith in life and vitality in what is otherwise quite a dark portrait of the city. In honed-down, crisp form several linked anecdotes reveal the lives of a group of young guys in Johannesburg, who have ended up in the inner city to pursue their dreams.
Hlongwane’s is a worthy addition to the genre in which Kgebetli Moele, Niq Mhlongo and Paswane Mpe have already made their mark.
He shows us how these “well-read, street-smart, Jozi kleva[s]” undermine their own lives and relationships through heavy drinking, promiscuity and infidelity – leading to disillusion and sometimes HIV. The women in their lives have to make some hard choices.
This novel’s special virtue lies in the subtle, cleverly voiced and dialectally various conversations between these men on topics such as failed reconciliation, persistent racism, xenophobia, the economies of African states and the real lives of sex workers.
Offsetting these is a story in which the narrator, battling a terrible headache, is accompanied on foot to the nearest pharmacy by a man with a great story about corruption foiled.
Though violence and crime haunt the city, and Hlongwane satirises the chancers and liars with rough affection, he also sees compassion, courage, innocence and common sense. A memorable read and a book to own.
UNIMPORTANCE by Thando Mgqolozana (Jacana)
Thando Mgqolozana’s third novel is every bit as challenging as his previous two. Set in urban Cape Town, it’s an easier read and more accessible than the extraordinary Hear Me Alone, but it addresses the heart of questions about moral integrity.
The book covers a critical 12 hours in the life of Zizi, who is standing for election as the students’ representative council president at a university in the Western Cape (not named, but it must be UWC). He has a few hours in which to write his campaign speech, but when his girlfriend, Pamodi, just disappears, he has to search for her.
The novel is tightly constructed around these two elements, the unwritten speech and the missing girlfriend. Zizi finds himself in several rooms in residences (named after great struggle heroes such as Ruth First and Basil February) and student hangouts, and everyone addresses him as though he is indeed the president-elect.
Through various flashbacks one gets a detailed picture of issues on campus, and of how national politics influence student affairs. Zizi’s organisation, “founded by Steve Biko”, is being challenged by the New Tendency students who do not support the “prosaic president” of the mother organisation.
All this is lucidly delivered in Mgqolozana’s rapid style, and enlivened by several portraits of characters on campus who serve to illustrate the vulnerability of women in the context of liberation where they share co-ed residences, drink (far too much) with male students, and are frequently still regarded as sex objects. The author is candid on these matters, and gives three women friends of Zizi’s – Amaze, Bomi and even the turncoat Sqojiji – important roles as confidantes.
There’s a whiff of the linguistic singularity of Hear Me Alone in the narrator’s consistent reference to his heart as “the frog of my chest” – weird, but apt.
In his pursuit of integrity as a leader, Zizi, after an emotional night of reflection and in which he finds himself wanting, says: “Meaning is embedded in the most unimportant things. We are here to find meaning, and that means we have to exert ourselves in unimportance.”
Although this novel reads swiftly, its complex significance is not obvious. Mgqolozana continues as he began: startling and serious, a gifted writer.