Rian Malan’s one and only meeting with J.M. Coetzee took place in the early 1990s. Malan greatly esteemed his fellow South African writer, and when Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, he declared that the laureate had “described, more truly than any other, what it was to be white and conscious in the face of apartheid’s stupidities and cruelties.” But what had struck Malan when he came face-to-face with Coetzee was, as he told The New Statesman in 1999, his asceticism. Coetzee was “a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.”
The writer is always a result of the man. With Coetzee, this intensity of focus and denial of his own ego have allowed him to create characters whose internal conflicts are perfectly attuned to those of white South Africa. From Waiting for the Barbarians to Disgrace, his novels are complex allegories in which psychology is presented not in its messy, everyday incarnation, but under the intense magnification of the author’s microscope. His protagonists are invented for the specific purpose of illustrating a moral crisis.
I’m not saying that Coetzee’s characters are representational stick figures. But they don’t seem like people you would sit down with to drink a beer. Rian Malan, on the other hand, does seem like such a person—you might take a drag from his cigarette, too. Yet his moral crisis was no less acute than Coetzee’s. And in his only book, My Traitor’s Heart, published just as the drama of apartheid’s final demolition was taking place in 1990, Malan’s project was no different from Coetzee’s. He meant to answer the question posed in his epigraph, taken from a Boer reggae song: “How do I live in this strange place?”
My Traitor’s Heart was as much the result of Malan’s character as Coetzee’s work was the result of his. Malan was and still is charismatic and rakishly good-looking, a drinker, loved by women, and obsessive in his intellectual pursuits. He wrote his book at the age of thirty-five, after years of traveling the world and living a hobo’s existence. Not much has changed since then. A recent Guardian profile described him as living on various friends’ couches. In 2005, he released an album of himself singing original folk songs, which the British paper described as a “part Tom Waits, part Serge Gainsbourg, all in Afrikaans.”
But Malan hasn’t produced another book. Since the publication of My Traitor’s Heart, he has mostly attached himself to crusades. In 2000, he wrote an investigative piece about Solomon Linda, the Zulu singer who composed the original version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“Mbube”), only to be shortchanged of royalties when the song became an international classic. Malan’s most recent obsession—disputing the official tally of people living with aids in South Africa—even cost him his marriage.
Yet, after all these years, My Traitor’s Heart has lost none of its emotional power. Whereas Coetzee’s novels have always felt like finished products, Malan’s memoir was one of process: the book embodied his own struggle to see his country and its people as they actually were, and not as he wished them to be. To read it now is to experience the bravery of a young writer determined to stare unblinkingly at the ambiguity and complexity of what he found around him—including his own racism.
Born in 1954, Malan grew up in the liberal, northern, white suburbs of Johannesburg, where opposition to apartheid rule was taken for granted. He was quick to absorb the values of this milieu. After reading a Life magazine article about Che Guevara in Bolivia, he decided that he, too, wanted to be a Communist and help the persecuted blacks, though he never actually came into contact with any beyond the servants in his home. When he lost his virginity to a black woman whose name he never learned, it was a point of pride, to be bragged about at school. He even had a blues band and sang about black oppression.
“Isn’t that absurd?” Malan writes in My Traitor’s Heart. “Nobody laughed. We were utterly oblivious to the irony of it, which says something significant about those English-speaking, bourgeois, northern suburbs. They were in South Africa, but somehow not really of it. The rest of the country was a racist Calvinist despotism, but the northern suburbs were liberal, permissive, governed by the ruling philosophical orthodoxies of the West.”