Friday, March 8, 2013

Review: MY TRAITOR'S HEART, by Rian Malan

My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe and His Conscience, by Rian Malan. Published 2000 by Grove Press. Nonfiction.

I've been kind of putting off reviewing this book because I know this is going to be a difficult review to write, but I think the time has come. My Traitor's Heart is a combination memoir and true-crime narrative, about the life and growth of the writer, South African journalist and dissident Rian Malan, and a series of murders that took place in the last 30 years or so in South Africa, which Malan believes demonstrate the toll of the apartheid system, still in place when the book was written.

Malan himself is a descendant of one of the original architects of the formal apartheid system. His relationship to apartheid therefore feels deeply personal, and while he's opposed to it, his feelings about race relations are deeply ambivalent and unclear even to himself.
What would you have me say? That I think apartheid is stupid and vicious? I do. That I'm sorry? I am, I am. That I'm not like the rest of them? If you'd met me a few years ago, in a bar in London or New York, I would have told you that...You would probably have believed me. I almost believed myself, you see, but in truth I was always one of them. I am a white man born in Africa, an all else flows from there.
That's just the introduction. What flows from here is a searing, difficult to read, impossible to ignore narrative of injustice, violence and death. Alongside his own struggles,  Malan recounts several notorious murder cases- white on black, black on black and black on white- all meant to illustrate the profound psychological affects of apartheid on whites and blacks alike. He travels from the horrific torture and death of a black man at the hands of whites at a barbecue, to a serial killer who preyed on affluent white couples, to a man killed in a diamond mine to the rather sad tale of Neil and Creina Alcock, a white couple who tried to live in a particularly economically disadvantaged and historically abused area, Msinga.

He documents his own journey, from smart-mouth journalist to alienated ex-pat to confused and conflicted prodigal son. What did he learn from all this?
So I dunno, my friend, I dunno what to say anymore. When I came home to face my demons, I heard a song called "Reggae Vibes Is Cool," sung by Bernoldus Neimand, 'Bernard Nobody,' the world's first exponent of Boer New Wave rock and roll. His song was a Boer reggae song, the music of black suffering sung in the vernacular of white supremacy, and its chorus had a line that broke my heart. It ran 'How do I live in this strange place?' That seemed a very valid question to me. I had never learned how to live in my own country. I ran away because it was too strange to bear, and when I came home, it was stranger than ever. Everyone had blood on their hands.
What I learned from Malan's memoir is how little I know about South Africa. Malan has a new book of essays out, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which brings us up to date on South Africa. I haven't read it yet but I plan to, and I strongly encourage anyone at all to read both or either book. I think My Traitor's Heart is required reading, and maybe his new book is, too. It's extraordinary, unforgettable and gave me a real education in the background of this troubled country that continues to exercise a strong pull on the imagination and the world stage. I'm constantly impressed by the quality of literature that comes out of this country, and that's why I'm so interested in reading about it in a nonfictional context too, and I urge you to do the same.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I can imagine this is difficult. I remember how strongly it affected me just to read about the fate of Stephen Biko!

bermudaonion said...

I know little of South Africa either. I know of apartheid, of course, but never really thought of how it affected people beyond their day to day lives. This sounds like an important book.

Ali said...

Books like this always leave me in a quandary. I think knowing about other parts of the world is important, and from the bits you quoted, I think I'd enjoy his writing a lot. But I know I'd have a hard time getting through it due to the emotional impact those types of stories have on me.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Wow. I bet that was a hard review to write but you did a little dazzling there if I may so so myself. I know so little about this part of the world, and what a way to learn about it! This guy has my admiration for being so honest.

Barbara said...

Sounds like a great book. I saw many plays by the South African playwright over Athol Fugard over the years -- some quite violent. They made a strong impression. Sounds like this book does too.

Audra said...

You've sold me -- I need this book. It sounds amazing.

Rob Walton said...

I read this book in 1990. It has never left me. I think about it often. Perhaps it's time to re-read. I would hazard to suggest that we not think of books like My Traitor's Heart as being written specifically about one place. I believe the true landscape and locale for bigotry and hatred is found in the book's title.