Janet van Eeden - 2011-11-24 Untitled Document
Author: Rian Malan
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
Resident Alien has been reprinted since 2009, and it’s a good thing it’s back on our shelves. Some people, like me, missed it the first time around. Although the most recent piece written dates to 2010, Malan has added postscripts at the end of each entry to update the collection. It adds an interesting dimension to see how his articles can sometimes predict the way events will unfold.
The most interesting case in point is the opening essay, “Nemesis”. First written in 2008, it was updated in 2010, and now has a rather self-satisfied postscript not quite but almost saying, “I told you so”. It is the story of Paul O’ Sullivan, an improbable hero with a shady past, who sets out to take on the big daddies of South Africa’s underworld, including the then Minister of Police and head of Interpol, Jackie Selebi. O’Sullivan’s world runs parallel to the world of Glen Agliotti and Brett Kebble, and his insider knowledge blew the lid on Kebble’s assisted suicide long before the rest of the world realised there was more to Kebble’s death than a botched hijacking. While the facts of the corruption in the police force and among so-called leaders of industry might now be common knowledge, it’s the way Malan unfolds this tale of intrigue and double-dealings that makes this essay one which stands the test of time. Even though Selebi’s trial is done and dusted and Agliotti is sunning himself on a beach near you, immune from prosecution due to his sheer slipperiness, Malan writes with sheer storytelling skill to keep you glued to the page until late at night.
Another excellent piece of writing which doesn’t date in the slightest is Malan’s take on one of his icons, JM Coetzee. In a piece intriguingly titled “The Prince of Darkness” the legendary journophobe Coetzee gives Malan less than nothing in a one-on-one interview. Malan has to draw his own conclusions. Does Coetzee now think along the same lines as one of his post-South African characters, Elizabeth Costello? She is:
a famous novelist and literary critic who goes around the world delivering lectures informed by a cold distaste for almost everything – journalists, fans, people who eat meat, people who write about violence, who indulge the pretensions of second-rate African novelists, who carry on ceaselessly about literary theory, and worst of all – people who keep inviting the writer to award ceremonies that have become pointless and unbearable … “We are just performers speaking our parts,” says the writer. “The core discipline of universities is money-making. The lecture hall itself may be a zoo.”
Is this the voice of Coetzee, emerging from the mouth of one of his characters? When he stepped up to receive his Nobel prize, was he secretly thinking, all this is nonsense, I wish you’d just sent the cheque in the mail?
Because Coetzee is Coetzee, we will never know. He is a grand master of the literary game of truth and illusion, inclined to speak, if he speaks at all, in riddles and codes that I am far too dense to decipher. Besides, it’s a game that spares everyone the ordeal of confronting reality. I suspect the truth is quite simple: Coetzee has written many great novels, but Disgrace is the one they will talk about for decades, because it cuts so dangerously close to the bone. I think Coetzee was saying it will take centuries for whites to live down the consequences of centuries of oppression. Might not be the sort of thing anyone particularly wants to hear, but it’s true, isn’t it?
Another gem of a piece of writing which doesn’t date at all is the unravelling of the intricate web of mystery behind the copyright to Solomon Linda’s song “Mbube”. Mbube means “the lion” in Zulu. Malan traces the song’s roots from a basic recording studio in downtown Johannesburg in 1938 to the faraway studios of Pete Seger and his band, The Weavers, in the ‘60s Greenwich Village, New York. The simply magical lyricism of the song then falls into the hands of some of the biggest music producers America has seen. Even though Seger asked that his share of the royalties be sent back to Solomon Linda’s family in South Africa, once the music moguls get their hands on the song, that part of the deal is conveniently forgotten. Overshadowed by greed, thinly disguised with red tape, they transmute the song into a variety of forms, until it ends up as one of the signature tunes of Disney’s The Lion King.
Malan, with the relentlessness of an olde worlde newshound, flies to the US of A to track down the parties behind the money and finds himself largely stonewalled. It’s a tribute to his dedication as a journalist that he doesn’t relent until he uncovers the fact that “Mbube” by another name would still have earned Solomon Linda over $15 million if he’d been paid his dues. Malan fights producer after lawyer, until the late Solomon Linda’s family gets a slice of their just deserts, even though the majority of the large pie had long been devoured by overfed producers in the West.
And there’s more: there’s an autopsy of Mark Gevisser’s reverent biography of Thabo Mbeki; an examination of the coffin-makers who benefit more than anyone from the Aids crisis; an exploration of the truth behind the Aids statistics and the do-gooders who sing for “poor Africa’s” supper; Malan’s role as a thorn in the side of the Truth Commission, as well as a personal piece about Malan’s own aspirations of becoming a rock star.
One UK reviewer called Rian Malan the Hunter S Thompson of South Africa. To me he is more like the veteran truth-sayer John Pilger in his determination to tell a story as he sees it, no matter how unpopular it may be to the zeitgeist of the day.
If you didn’t read Resident Alien the first time around, make sure you don’t miss it this time.