Tuesday, May 6, 2008

PEN World Voices: Rian Malan

I read My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan not long after it came out in 1990. It was recommended by my ex-boss, a white South African exile who headed up the US office of the International Defense and Aid Fund. The book was frighteningly honest, he said, and when I read it I agreed. Malan wrote about growing up in an Afrikaner family, rebelling against the prejudice that surrounded him, playing in a rock band, losing his virginity to an African woman, and becoming a crime reporter in Johannesburg. But none of this was simple. Malan wanted to feel solidarity with the Africans, but he was afraid of Africans. He witnessed terrible crimes by the security forces but other atrocities committed by anti-apartheid activists, and even some motivated by witchcraft. Malan’s thoughts about race in South Africa remain complicated and uncomfortable, and his statements at the PEN panels on Memoir and Reportage and on Truth and Reconciliation reflected that. It would take more thought, a rereading of My Traitor’s Heart, and research into Malan’s later writings for me to reach any real conclusions. In the meantime, hearing him prompted questions: What is the value of honesty? Malan doesn’t spare himself in his memoirs, and the result is a compelling, even harrowing picture of a conflicted man. It is even, in its own way, a work of art. But honesty doesn’t guarantee correctness, and it doesn’t necessarily advance relations between the races. As Malan said about the South African truth commission, it opens up old wounds. Should the crimes of freedom fighters be regarded in the same way as the crimes of the regime? This was a question that moderator Paul van Zyl touched on in the Truth and Reconciliation panel. Maybe the crimes of freedom fighters should be treated more leniently, because their cause is just. Maybe they should be treated more harshly, because the perpetrators should know better, and they don’t have the excuse of being trapped in the belly of an oppressive regime. Or maybe a line needs to be drawn between the justice of a cause and the actions of those who fight for that cause, as Michael Walzer argues in his book Just and Unjust Wars. Does it distort reality to examine oneself too deeply or critically? Malan tells how, during his years in America, he would present himself as a just South African, an Afrikaner who couldn’t stomach defending apartheid by force. He said that he was "lying through my teeth," but reading him or listening to him forces you to conclude that it was least partly true. By owning his negative impulses and not his positive ones, and by focusing on the worst deeds of the best people, Malan’s vision of the future turned dark. This habit of mind may have been one reason why Malan expected an all-out race war in his country that never came (he describes how he found himself peddling "my little blood pudding" just as Nelson Mandela was being released from 27 years in prison) and why he seems so dissatisfied by the work of the truth commission.

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