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Nthikeng Mohlele’s Small Things Launched with Karabo Kgoleng

Nthikeng Mohlele

Small ThingsNthikeng Mohlele was in conversation with SAfm’s Karabo Kgoleng at the launch of his novel Small Things at Exclusive Books Mandela Square on Wednesday evening.

The protagonist of Small Things is a dreamer, singled out by fate for an uncertain life. He spent 18 years in prison under the apartheid system (for unspecified sins) and ends up on the streets of Johannesburg with a trumpet and an indigent dog as his companions. He has an obsessive love for a woman named Desiree, who remains the one constant in his life and impels his search for the elusive meaning of existence.

Elana Bregin from UKZN Press said that they are very honoured to have published this book, as it is beautifully written and deals with questions we all ask ourselves. The guest speaker was Professor James Ogude, who met Mohlele at Wits University where he was a student of African Literature. He remarked that while most students come to university to look for careers; the curious come to look for knowledge. Mohlele was one of these. He always sat at the back of the class, listening, and asked few but challenging and probing questions that forced one to look at things twice. He mentioned that Mohlele had submitted an essay on a surrealist Ugandan play that was the finest the professor had seen in thirty years. He said that readers of Small Things will notice the fluent prose, fine poetic diction and economy of words, which Mohlele considers sacred and not to be used carelessly. This is an amazing story about the everyday, the ordinary. Mohlele is interested in characters that are easily ignored (the existentialist in this story), moving on the fringes of society and searching for meaning, love and beauty, the story delving into the underbelly of society.

In her conversation with Mohlele, Kgoleng asked Mohlele to explain the concept of the dreamer. He said that he himself is a dreamer who lives largely in his head. He referred to the many despicable things that have happened in the world historically and how humanity has evolved as a species despite world wars and genocide. He is interested in the interplay between the personal and the government systems that are imposed upon people, and the tension between the social and political. People struggle to roll out their lives in the context of government systems like apartheid and to think outside of these constraints.

Mohlele read an extract from the book highlighting the interaction between two men on the streets of Johannesburg. One has just been released after 18 years’ imprisonment to find that the town has changed a great deal…and he gets mugged.

Kgoleng mentioned that her favourite quote from the book is “Here’s to the power of rising above one’s own temperament”, which comes from the protagonist’s experience of imprisonment. She also referred to the theme of jazz in the book, and asked how jazz featured as a character. Mohlele replied that his other great passion is music, and his love of jazz comes from the ability of jazz musicians to improvise.

Asked about the themes of isolation, loneliness, companionship and compromise, Mohlele said that before we can say “world” or “nation”, we are on our own as individuals. Loneliness deals with the way one adapts to the limitations, threats and opportunities in the world. Relationships cut through time. From a writer’s perspective it is what lies in the spaces between the individual and the wider society, and before they become part of the universal. There are references to mathematics and astronomy in the book too. Mohlele said that there is a lack of understanding of the universe. If we were so smart we would be able to count the stars in the sky, but no one can.

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