Incisive, impetuous, impertinent: Rian Malan is the kind of literary animal – or should we say beast? – whose fierceness only matches his sense of the narration. The author became famous some 20 years ago with My Traitor’s Heart, a best-selling novel exposing the anguish of a young, pro-black, liberal white hipster confronted by the role of his family in the Apartheid system he despised. Using the same uncompromising style inspired by the American New Journalism, which he defines as non-fiction so carefully observed and exhaustively reported that reading it is almost as good as being there, Malan strikes another big blow with Resident Alien, his last work published by Jonathan Ball in 2009.
Composed of 27 articles that first appeared in prestigious publications such as The Spectator, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, the collection has provoked an avalanche of adjectives as diverse as the themes it explores. It’s been called “incestuous”, “deceitful”, “incompetent”, and even “racist” – but any South African journalist who hasn’t been called a racist or self-hating house negro is a ‘kak’, one might remind the author. Others, like me, find the book evidently provocative but engaging enough to be recommended to anybody willing to approach contemporary South Africa in oblique and often hilarious ways.
Malan’s main obsession, his central idée fixe around which all the others revolve is The Story. Exposing corrupt politicians’ dirty schemes or demanding justice for Solomon Linda – the forgotten author of Mbube, “lion” in Zulu, a song whose legendary melody was later copied out as The Lion Sleeps Tonight without giving credit to the original – Malan always develops thrilling plots with heroes, villains, juicy pieces of action and breath-taking climaxes. Building his reports like detective stories, he often gives himself the central role – a position comforting his detractors in their ad hominem attacks; digging deep in dirt in pursuit of the truth.
In his quest, the author is soon confronted with a sizeable problem. As he himself admits, there is no such thing as a true story in South Africa. The facts might be correct, all details double-checked but the truth they reveal will always be challenged by someone else.
“We live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably,” he believes. “The blessing of living here is that every day presents you with material whose richness beggars the imagination of those who live in saner places. The curse is that you can never, ever get it quite right, and if you come close, the results are usually unpublishable.”
This theory proves particularly true when Malan challenges the AIDS activists’ statistics in what is arguably the most controversial piece of the whole book. Back in 2000, the American magazine Rolling Stone had been curious about South Africa’s widely despised public policy of “AIDS denialism” and asked the author for a paper about the inside and untold story of President Thabo Mbeki’s descent into AIDS madness. Embarking in a several-month-long investigation that took him across a dozen sub-Saharan African countries, Malan ultimately arrived to an unexpected conclusion.
“Unfortunately, the facts as I found them failed to justify Mbeki’s decapitation, so I veered off on a tangent that fell way outside Rolling Stone’s brief, with consequences that will dog me to my grave.”
And indeed, the consequences of his dubious AIDS paper still pursue Malan – just google his name to have a clue. In some sense, this is reassuring: an author who is ready to sacrifice his reputation, refusing to bend the knee in front of political correctness just to expose a story as he feels it cannot be all bad. True, Malan’s papers contain biases. But biases are what make his book interesting, for they always tell something about contemporary South Africa that is not only canny and well-documented, but also daring and most often totally unexpected.