Rian Malan’s collection of journalism, Resident Alien, was launched last night in Johannesburg, at one of the biggest book events of the year.
As a physical object, the volume is an impressive specimen: it runs to a bulky 336 pages; it’s got a cover shout from the London Times that marks the author out as “South Africa’s Hunter S Thompson”. The back cover, meanwhile, carries quotes from the closer-to-home Lin Sampson and Koos Kombuis.
Despite this, at first, I thought it was going to be a book I wasn’t going to get too excited about. But then I read Malan’s introduction, and I knew I’d have to carry on all the way to page 336. Sampson calls it correctly in her blurb: Malan is a dangerously good writer.
BOOK SA is pleased to be in a position to remind you why; here’s the dangerously good introduction in full, an exclusive excerpt that we’re proud to feature:
* * * * * * * *
Once upon a time in America, I worked for a semi-underground newspaper that had offices on a seedy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard and at least one great writer on its masthead. Michael Ventura was a New Yorker who’d somehow reinvented himself as a straight-shootin’, hard-drinkin’ cowboy from the lonesome plains of Texas. I guess that was the Larry McMurtry part of his complex persona. He also had a Kerouac aspect and broad streaks of Mailer and Hemingway, but on the page, the spirit he most often channelled was Thomas Wolfe, whose incantatory rhythms he could mimic with uncanny accuracy.
Ventura started out as a reporter, but he’d decided that ‘nobody can write fast enough to tell a true story’ and moved on to movie reviews.
If we were lucky, he’d pitch up on a Tuesday morning with black rings around his eyes and two days’ stubble on his chin, bearing a searing 5 000-word essay on whatever Hollywood blockbuster had irritated him that week. The best of those reviews began, ‘This is a chickenshit movie.’
So then – let’s get on with it. This is a chickenshit collection, and the best I can offer is some lame excuses as to why. Let’s begin with Ventura’s aphorism about the alleged impossibility of writing a true story. This is of little consequence to news reporters who glance at the charge sheet and produce a dry recitation of the basic facts, but some of us had other dreams. I suppose the ideal was a piece of non-fiction so carefully observed and exhaustively reported that reading it was as good as being there.
This was a fiendishly difficult thing to pull off, even in America, where people speak the same language, share most values and understand with a reasonable degree of certainty the boundaries of the matrix they inhabit. The laws of cause and effect are known. The narrative may twist and turn, but the forces that drive it are quantified. Even so, your chances were slender. You could set the words down and polish them until your fingers bled, but Ventura was generally right: the ideal was beyond attainment Nobody can write fast enough to tell a true story.
In America, this was an artsy verdict on the limitations of the form. In South Africa, it’s like a law of nature: there’s no such thing as a true story here. The facts might be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. My truths strike some people as racist heresies. Nadine Gordimer’s strike me as distortions calculated to appeal to gormless liberals on the far side of the planet. A lot of South Africans can’t read either of us, so their truth is something else entirely. Atop all this, we live in a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist entirely amicably. We are a light unto nations. We are an abject failure. We are progressing even as we hurtle backward. 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.
I would say, looking back, that the only worthwhile writing I’ve done over the past two decades appeared in letters to friends in whose company I could ignore the crushing racial taboos that govern public discourse and just call it as I saw it. Beyond that, I don’t know. I think it was TS Eliot who said the end of all exploring is to return to where you began and see it as if for the first time. When I came home from America, everything seemed different to me; I saw that I was in Africa, and that changed everything. Those I’d left behind remained obsessed with apartheid. I became obsessed with what replaced it. They thought apartheid was the source of all SA’s pain. I thought we were doomed unless we figured out what had gone wrong elsewhere in Africa, and how to avoid a similar fate. I was an atheist in the great revival tent of the New South Africa; the faith on offer was too simple and sentimental, the answers too easy.
We’ll probably disagree here, but if you ask me, the most telling creation of apartheid was not the dompas, or the veiligheidspolisie, or the mines and factories that generated the taxes that paid for repressive measures. It was not the sjambok, or the whites-only signs that once hung on everything from toilet doors to the portals of higher education. Apartheid’s great triumph was the creation of a generically Western moonbase on Africa, where whites lived exactly like whites in the capitals of the great white empire.
It follows that apartheid’s greatest glories were actually suburbs like Parktown, where English-speaking liberals lived in a bubble that resembled nothing so much as the more civilised parts of Boston or London. Parktown had it all. It had Nadine Gordimer, who won a Nobel for her fashionable literary critique of the empire that largely tolerated and sustained her. It had the Linder Auditorium, where civilised whites gathered to hear other whites playing the music of Dead White Men. And finally it had that great university on the far side of Empire Road, where white professors faithfully propagated doctrines laid down on the far side of the planet by the High Priests of white civilisation.
By the time Mandela came out of prison, those doctrines were gen- erally of the variety called ‘progressive,’ which rejoiced in the downfall of white males. Practitioners of this doctrine saw themselves as part of, sometimes even heroes of, the uprising of the natives. They thought the wrath of the masses would fall on the bad white males who controlled the land and the mines, while ‘good’ whites merged into a smiley-face culture of interracial harmony and soft socialism. I said, bullshit, dudes, the laws of poetic symmetry call for another outcome entirely. The wind of change will eventually sweep everything away – your job, your illusions, your university as presently constituted, the wires that bring light at the flick of a switch, the pipes that discreetly remove your turds, the freeways on which you drive, the high-tech chemical farms that put food on your table, the investments intended to sustain your comfortable old age, and the clean, efficient hospitals in which you plan to expire. All these things are creations of the empire, and when it fades, they will too.
That was more than two decades ago. Every day since has brought thunderous confirmation of the rectitude of my prognostications. Every day also brought irrefutable proof of the fact that I was mistaken. I cursed Mandela when he refused to shake De Klerk’s hand during some televised debate during the peace talks era. A few months later I was fighting back tears at his inauguration. I claimed vindication when the rand began its great collapse, ate my words when it bounced back again. Every farm murder seemed to herald the onset of generalised ethnic cleansing. Every visit to Soweto left me believing in the brotherhood of man again. And so on.
There was a time when I thought these howling ambiguities could only be resolved by a great cleansing apocalypse, but the apocalypse never came. Instead, we had the delirious triumph of the 1995 rugby world cup, where dik Boers wept and said, ‘That is my president,’ as Mandela raised the golden trophy into the blue heavens celebrated in Die Stem. The resulting goodwill was obliterated by the one-sided maunderings of the Truth Commission, but it made a comeback when the economy started growing under Mbeki. Five years later, Zimbabwe put catastrophe back on the agenda, and by the time the lights went out in 2008, the end seemed nigh. Everything seemed to be disintegrating: Eskom, the parastatals, the sewerage system, the highways, the hospitals, the putative moral integrity of the Rainbow Nation. But even as the rot deepened, we saw the rise of the only force that could check it – black people who said, fuck racial solidarity, this cannot be tolerated.
Which brings us back to Michael Ventura. I imagine him shaking his head in disbelief as he reads this. ‘Chickenshit,’ he says. ‘Malan can’t make up his mind. He’s been sitting on the fence so long the wire is cutting into his pompous and cowardly arsehole.’ I agree entirely, but if there is an overarching truth here, I can’t see it. The only true line I’ve ever written about South Africa is this one: ‘We yaw between terror and ecstasy. Sometimes we complete the round trip in just fif- teen minutes.’ If you share the feeling, thanks, but there’s a significant difference between us: I am a journalist, which means that I leave a trail of prophecies and judgements, several of which are mortally embarrassing in retrospect. There is no excuse for such failings, but if this was a trial, I’d waltz my way to an acquittal.
In the past two decades, South Africa has been stricken almost weekly by scandals that would have toppled governments in the West but seem almost meaningless here. Who stole the funds donated to help resettle ANC exiles? Who asked the Zambian government to throw Katiza Cebekhulu into a dungeon so that he couldn’t testify against Winnie Mandela? Did Thabo Mbeki really negotiate the arms deal on a ‘government to government’ basis and pocket the resulting commissions? Did he really tell Bulelani Ngcuka to bring him the head of Jacob Zuma, even if that entailed fabricating evidence and setting honey traps? When these stories break, you think they’re going to tear the country apart and alter everything forever. But they don’t. They linger for a week or two and then fade into oblivion, blown off the front pages by the next dumbfounding scandal. The ordinary laws of cause and effect don’t seem to apply here. The boundaries of the matrix we inhabit remain unknown.
But what the heck, there’s something to be said for practising journalism on the edge of an abyss, trying to follow your targets into the murk that surrounds. In the pieces that follow, I often miss, but there are a few passages that come close to disproving Michael Ventura’s dictum. For the rest, I tried my best, and provoked reactions as richly varied as the reality we inhabit. A few people said nice things, of course – ‘a born story-teller,’ according to the judges on some American awards jury – but the reactions that lodge in my memory are mostly the angry ones. Some said racist, but that’s so commonplace it’s barely worth mentioning; any South African journalist who hasn’t been called a racist or self-hating black is a kak one whose lips are chapped from sucking the unmentionable appendages of those in power. The more interesting accusations were incest, homosexual tendencies, heterosexual debauchery, incompetence, deceit, murder, sissiness, ‘carbuncular’ practices, a secret alliance with the diabolical President Mbeki, spying for Inkatha, drinking too much, taking drugs and smelling bad.
What can I say? My name is Rian Malan and I called it as I saw it.
* * * * * * * *