Thursday, May 06, 2004

The enduring value of My Traitor's Heart
Does My Traitor's Heart, by Rian Malan, have enduring value? I ask this question because Andrew has suggested that it might not have, largely because it expresses the fears and hopes of a very particular period of South African history (just prior to the 1994 elections). Possibly, he says, it will quickly become dated, if it hasn't already.

I read My Traitor's Heart for the first time recently, partly with this question in mind. And I have to say that I think the book still does have value and will continue to have for some time yet.

Why? Well, a few reasons. Firstly, there's no doubt that it captures the mood of one of the most pivotal periods of our history extremely well. For that, it will be worth reading for some time. Secondly, I found the history fascinating. The story that Malan tells at the beginning, about how one of his relatives fled from the Cape with a coloured slave-girl, crossed the Kei River, and then resurfaced in the Slagtersnek rebellion is one of the most compelling that I've read for some time.

More fundamentally, though, I don't think that Malan's underlying themes -- inter-racial distrust and violence -- have dated at all. True, he might have feared being murdered in his bed post-94, but how many of us still don't fear violent crime when we're in South Africa? Sadly, violence -- black on white, white on black, black on black etc -- remains a settled feature of South African cultural life. The question for his generation might have been how to find the courage to end apartheid, but it seems to me that the question for many of my contemporaries is whether to make their lives in South Africa at all. And the sort of factors that made Malan fear the future in 1992 seem to me to be very similar to those that are prompting young South Africans to leave now.

Apart from this, he also brilliantly captures just how little most South Africans have in common, something that has not changed all that much. The episode that comes to mind in the book is the trial of Simon, aka the "hammerman", a serial killer in Eshowe. At a certain point in his trial Simon emits a world-weary groan that Malan, being the liberal journalist, interprets as an indictment of apartheid. But, after trapsing through the hills of Natal with an interpreter, he eventually realises that Simon was lamenting, not apartheid, but a feature of his past that is almost incomprehensible to an outsider to Zulu culture. Given that I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal, but speak only a few words of Zulu, I could relate to this quite well.

There's also the question of how to live as a white person in Africa. Do you look back to Europe and seek your values and inspiration from there? Or do you open yourself to the society around you? Or do you do a bit of both? These questions remain pertinent and it seems to me that they are brilliantly compressed in the final chapters of Malan's book, when he tells the story of a white couple that seek to live amongst rural Zulus. For those who haven't read the book, I won't disclose the details. But it is disturbing. The question Malan seems to ask himself is whether he has caught a glimpse of South Africa's future, one that does not full him with hope. And it seems to me that many white South Africans will, when reading this story now, ask themselves the same question about their futures.

So, no, I don't think that My Traitor's Heart has dated. Instead, I think it remains a brilliantly written and searingly honest account of the contradictions of being white in Africa. It definitely deserves its place in the South African canon.


At 14 May 2009 at 13:17, Blogger Thomas said...

Just a note to thank you for this discussion of a book I loved. A white suburban(pampered) American, I fought courage and warmth on every page. Rian Malan was my necessary Virgil at a time when all Americans were pondering pre-postapartheid South Africa and all it had to teach us in our enduring struggle for civil rights in the continuing American Revolution. Now, even in the heady days of the early Obama presidency, the struggle continues. Enduring relevance ? I bet Gandhi-gi and King would have thought so. --Thom D.

At 14 May 2009 at 13:19, Blogger Thomas said...

Make that "found", not "fought" in line 3

At 24 August 2012 at 12:05, Blogger Letters To Rian said...

I've started a blog that takes place in the referenced context of My Traitor's Heart, the first post perhaps is very forthright and strong, but perhaps if you get a chance you can take a look?


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