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Book Review: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

by Rian Malan

Grove Press, 2012

Probably inevitable that celebrated South African journalist Rian Malan’s new book should be called The Lion Sleeps Tonight, referring as it does to the famous and oft-covered catchy song. Malan wrote a typically engaging piece about the song, its curious, winding history, and the hard fact that its likely creator, a Zulu songwriter named Solomon Linda, got no money from any of its many adaptations. The piece got Malan a great deal of attention, and it’s reprinted here along with some two dozen other essays written over the last twenty years.

Malan catapulted to fame on the strength of his lone previous book, My Traitor’s Heart, written in 1989 when Malan returned to South Africa after having left it in 1977 to avoid being drafted into the country’s armed services. He spent the interval fine-tuning the journalist’s trade in Los Angeles, but his homecoming was necessarily fraught with personal conflicts, since Malan’s Afrikaner ancestors were some of the forebears and architects of apartheid society. My Traitor’s Heart is a brilliant, searching book, written in the full faith of Malan’s adherence to the tenets of New Journalism, in which the end goal is always to create “a piece of nonfiction so carefully observed and exhaustively reported that reading it was almost as good as being there.”

In many ways, The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a fit companion to that earlier masterpiece. The essays collected here are the works of an oddly proud writer, a confessional egotist with a flinty, almost showy sense of contrition and a keen awareness of his own changeability. Malan has made bold claims on a hundred subjects in his volatile and outspoken life, and he’s the first to admit he’s retracted quite a few of them. His South Africa is a showplace for this kind of ambivalence: “Every white murdered on a lonely farm seemed to herald the onset of generalized ethnic cleansing,” he writes. “Every visit to Soweto left me believing in the brotherhood of man again.”

He’s investigated and reported from the worst hot-spots of his country’s dark past, the “murky territory where hard men carry guns and kill those who threaten their secrets,” but he comes out of it all distrusting the ease of popular reporting:

Today, South African newspapers are full of stories about crime, unemployment, and the decay of our electricity supply network, which is increasingly prone to plunge us into days-long blackouts. On bad days, you get the impression of a doomed nation, septic with despair. But market research reveals blinding optimism in places like Soweto. Upwards of 80 percent of the black middle class feel life is great and getting better. They have money in their pockets and access to well-paid white collar jobs. Some own cars and take seaside holidays.

At one point Malan sparked a firestorm of controversy about the manufactured image of that ‘doomed nation’ when he wrote about the outrageous AIDS-related pronouncements of Thabo Mbeki in the late ’90s. Malan disputed some of the higher estimated death-tolls from the disease (he was fond of saying things like “I went out and looked for all the bodies, and I’m still looking”). The long epistolary essay he wrote about the subject, originally published in Rolling Stone, is reprinted here, and regardless of its politics, “The Body Count” is some appallingly vivid writing. “Imagine yourself in a mud hut, or maybe a tin shack on the outskirts of some sprawling city,” he invites his readers,

According to what you hear on the radio, AIDS is caused by a tiny virus that lurks unseen in the blood for many years, only to emerge in deep disguise: a disease whose symptoms are other diseases, like TB, for instance. Or pneumonia. Or running stomach. These diseases are not new, which is why some of your neighbors are skeptical, maintaining that AIDS actually stands for “American Idea for Discouraging Sex.” Others say nonsense, the scientist are right, we’re all going to die unless we use condoms. But condoms cost money and you have none, so you just sigh and hope for the best.

But some of the most memorable moments in The Lion Sleeps Tonight take place far from the strife and controversy which perhaps most of his readers associate Malan. There’s a deep love of Africa pulsing through these pages, perhaps a more valuable love for being hard-won and at times just a bit toffish:

Live in Cape Town long enough and you lose interest in the outside world. Visitors from more exciting cities start yawning at your dinner table, but I no longer care. They have no possible conception of the unbearable bliss of fine summer days when the sea is warm and the figs are ripe and you start the morning with a dive into a cool green rock pool, followed perhaps by coffee in one of those impossibly quaint cafes and a spot of light typing, if I can manage to ignore the drama outside my window – tides rising, whales blowing, birds diving, the boats coming back to the harbor below. The Contessa and I often walk down to meet them, and come home with a fat Cape salmon or snoek. Come sundown, we set the fish to grill on an open fire, uncork a bottle of wine, and, yes, congratulate ourselves for living in the last corner of Africa that is immune to chaos and madness.

It’s classic carefree Malan, that tossed-off “spot of light typing” (and it’s a testament to the man’s grungy glamor that any given anecdote of his might off-handedly feature somebody referred to as “the Contessa”), but it shouldn’t fool readers for a moment about the steep work on display in this prose. There’s a perfectionist’s ear at work in all these spots of ‘light typing,’ a respect for the craft of writing that shows on every page. Ultimately that craft trumps more localized controversies, as maybe it should.