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Rian Malan’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight Captures “the Transition in All its Dysfunction and Glory”

The Lion Sleeps TonightRian Malan’s latest book, The Lion Sleeps Tonight: and Other Stories of Africa, is an internationally published collection of his articles. Some of these stories were previously published in Resident Alien, which was only available locally.

Tim Adams from The Guardian recently commented that, “Most great journalists are contrarians of one kind of another, but it would be hard to find a writer more heroically committed to that particular archetype than the 58-year-old Malan.” He mentions two stories as standing out from the collection, one of which is the eponymous article that Malan wrote for Rolling Stone in 2000 about Solomon Linda, who created the song “Mbube” in 1939. The song was appropriated by others and turned into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, without Linda getting any credit or remuneration. The other story that Adams enjoyed was about the daughter of a 1902 Voortrekker who is living as a subsistence farmer below Mount Kilimanjaro.

It would be fair to say that Rian Malan is not a natural salesman. In his introduction to this collection of his compulsive journalism, his first book since his bestselling memoir My Traitor’s Heart 23 years ago, he observes: “I would say that the only worthwhile writing I’ve done over the last two decades appeared in letters to friends in whose company I could ignore the crushing taboos that govern discussion of race among civilised people. ”

Bill Keller from The New York Review of Books has said that in one of the stories in the collection, Malan “seriously overstates the part Boipatong played in the end of apartheid. But it is fair to say that the killings marked a kind of turning point in the career of Rian Malan.” He explains this by saying that up until then Malan was known for his memoir My Traitor’s Heart but that his writing on Boipatong caused “a turn from being the darling of the public intellectuals to a contrarian outlier—or, to use the word he would probably embrace, heretic.”

Late on the night of June 17, 1992, a formation of armed Zulu men emerged from a migrant labor barracks in the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg. Bearing spears, machetes, clubs, and the odd submachine gun, and fortified by traditional battle magic, the war party descended on the little township of Boipatong and began a house-to-house slaughter. The men were soldiers of the largely Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, wreaking vengeance on a town loyal to the rival African National Congress. The death toll would reach forty-nine men, women, and children, making it the gravest in a line of modern South African massacres. In The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a selection of his magazine work, Rian Malan says that this horror “altered the trajectory of South African history,” bringing such blame on President F.W. de Klerk and the other leaders of the last white government that it essentially broke their will to hold out for a sizable share of power in the new order.

Katie Baker from The Daily Beast, said that, “It’s a dizzying ride, one on which Malan serves as an expert, if somewhat curmudgeonly, guide”. Baker writes about the controversy around an article Malan wrote in 2000 on Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, saying, “Malan’s essays capture the transition in all its dysfunction and glory—from the African National Congress’ corruption scandals to the nation’s joy over winning the 1995 rugby cup”.

Our story begins in darkest (as they say) Africa, where a young Boer languished in the whites-only suburbs of the 1960’s, listening to rebellious longhair rock bands and dreaming—like a true Voortrekker–of an escape from his “hell of boredom and conformity.” He grew up, got a gig at an alternative weekly in L.A., fell in love with long-form New Journalism, and bummed about America for eight years. But the idyll was not to last, and when he returned to his South African veldt in the late ‘80s, he encountered a country on the brink of monumental, messy, historic change. Shacking up in the hopping Jo’burg satellite of Yeoville, he sallied forth to do ideological battle over rounds of beers with all manner of leftist hacks and real revolutionaries. He watched his homeland hold its first free elections, issued prophecies—some prescient, others wildly off the mark—about his country’s future trajectory, and wrote a wealth of great pieces for places like Rolling Stone and Esquire, making a few friends and a lot of enemies in the process.

Douglas Rogers, author of The Last Resort, reviewed The Lion Sleeps Tonight for The Wall Street Journal, saying that it exhibits “the same fiercely lyrical voice that made “My Traitor’s Heart” so compelling, the book is a beautiful, wry, often angry account of where South Africa has been and where it is going.”

In 1990, a South African journalist named Rian Malan published a blood-soaked memoir of his home country, “My Traitor’s Heart,” that became an instant classic. Published at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, the brutal account of the ways South Africans killed each other briefly made the young Afrikaner with rock-star looks the toast of the American literary scene.

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