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My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience

4.21 of 5 stars 4.21  ·  rating details  ·  1,781 ratings  ·  142 reviews
A classic of literary nonfiction, My Traitor's Heart has been acclaimed as a masterpiece by readers around the world. Rian Malan is an Afrikaner, scion of a centuries-old clan and relative of the architect of apartheid, who fled South Africa after coming face-to-face with the atrocities and terrors of an undeclared civil war between the races. This book is the searing acco ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published March 9th 2000 by Grove Press (first published January 1st 1990)
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Dreams Come True by Bridgitte LesleyLong Walk to Freedom by Nelson MandelaCry, the Beloved Country by Alan PatonDisgrace by J.M. CoetzeeMy Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan
Best South African reads
5th out of 146 books — 96 voters
Blood River by Tim ButcherThings Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Africa
64th out of 976 books — 945 voters


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Community Reviews

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Petra X
At its heart this book has the problem, what to do when you utterly despise your racist father who advocates violence as a solution when you love him terribly, terribly much?

It isn't a solveable dilemma. Rian, who despite his upbringing, isn't at all racist, leaves the country so he won't have to face it on a day-to-day-basis, but eventually returns to his homeland, because it is his home, and learns to live with the discordance in his heart.

Some reviewers have seen it as a book about the end-t
...more
Helen (Helena/Nell)
Apr 08, 2012 Helen (Helena/Nell) rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Helen (Helena/Nell) by: Chris Beaton
I think this is an essential book. Essential, I mean, for any human being who tries to understand the human condition—what we are, what we may be. Not that this is ever comprehensible but . . .

I don’t know how to begin this review.

In the front of the book, which my son gave me, he has written in his small backwards sloping hand: “This book is messed up and I think you will find it fascinating. A real example of someone telling a story because it’s the only way something can be said.”

He was righ
...more
Richard
In the final pages of this book, author Rian Malan "confesses" that the book didn't turn out to be what he originally intended, and I can see where he's coming from. It appears at the beginning to be a personal account of his experiences with, and feelings about, apartheid. But Malan is a journalist, and he ends up, as journalists do, talking with various people and relating their experiences. And that, I think, made it a better book than it would have been otherwise. Malan is unflinching; yes, ...more
Joe
Wow. I can honestly say I've never read a book like this one.
The book begins, apparently, with the intent of the author (a white South African writing in the late 80's) to trace his family through South African history to its the earliest events. The author, a self-confessed white liberal who detests apartheid, writes of his famous ancestors with a deeply critical eye.
However, as the book progresses the author uncovers mysterious, unresolvable contradictions in the lives of his ancestors and fin
...more
David Wurzburg
I LOVE THIS BOOK; a narrative non-fiction about the racial/social/political contradictions of "post" Apartheid South Africa.

written by a very uniquely historically-placed Afrikaner who is always at struggle with his place in the system.

one of my favorites, especially because it was recommended to me by my grandfather, who also loved it.
Josh Friedlander
Growing up as a white South African, my upbringing was quite similar to Rian Malan's. There was one crucial distinction: I lived in the "free", post-apartheid South Africa, where the miracle of democracy had given everyone the right to vote, live where they pleased, and earn a living wage. Everyone was relieved that we had gotten rid of our great moral burden, and we could finally just be a remote, peaceful nation, welcoming tourists to our wine routes and game reserves.

Except that things still
...more
Dan
Well then. I did enjoy reading this book until about three-quarters of the way through, where the heaviness of the crimes made me need to pace myself. It's well-written and engaging, though often it seems like the chapters were left with a bit of a cliffhanger, never to be picked up on later.

In fact, the whole book seems a bit short on resolution, and I get that that's the whole point. Or rather, I get that not being able to tie things up neatly at the end and letting things go mostly unspoken i
...more
Wren
Reading this in two days was a bad decision for a few reasons: 1) I didn't get to really love it the way I should have and 2) It's just so devastating that a person should not ingest that much tragedy in that short a time. This is a beautifully written, brutally honest account of a white man's wrestling with issues of conscience and identity in apartheid South Africa that I would recommend to anyone that's interested in the topic (I'm looking at you, human race). It's one of the worst marks on c ...more
Susan Hirtz
Well written, feelingly described yet heart-rending reflection on Mr. Malan's experiences growing up, incorporating both the bloody past and present of South Africa. This is a great feat of journalism and spiritual honesty; one that needs to be on everyone’s reading list.

Rian Malan is the son and grandson of the architects of South Africa's apartheid policy; men whose names were political mainstays of the Afrikaner political hierarchy and national mythology. Growing up in South Africa as their p
...more
Alisa
I was reading this book in Philz Coffee in San Francisco and I had to close the book and take some deep breaths to keep from crying in a public place. It's a memoir in a way, but mostly a collection of true stories of the way that people killed each other in South Africa, particularly in the 1980s in the dying throes of apartheid, but also how that hate and those killings were part of a system of hate and killings between races since the 1600s.

This book struck a powerful chord with me. It is al
...more
Joel
It's hard to "like" a book that focuses on something as atrocious as apartheid, but I found My Traitor's Heart enlightening while I was living in South Africa. Rian was an Afrikaner disillusioned by his own race and family, as they supported (or at least did not resist) severe racism. Rian rebelled to some extent but mostly seemed to feel paralyzation in the face of dangerous options. Standing against his people made him their enemy, but marching with the oppressed was equally perilous, as both ...more
Denise Cooper
I learned alot about apartheid. I learned alot about South Africa. I am still numb from the brutatlity and bullying, the sickness and evil that seems to live and house itself in the so called powers that be that ultimately filtered out to a people devouring and deviding and making this whole scene feel like some crazed out of space nonhuman types. i absolutely felt sick. confused by the crimes committed on both the white and black side of this damned apartheid. i am trying to understand and my h ...more
Matt
This, Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, and Cutting for Stone all shed light on the post-colonial ex-pat experience in central southern Africa, and come at it different ways. Malan's book is pretty haunting and definitely deserves to head the list. These are a definite post-modern twist on Out of Africa and along with non-fiction like Blood River and King Leopold's Ghost I think give pretty good insight into what's happened over the past 40 years in central Afric ...more
Tim
An absolutely unforgettable book. Favourite quote: “Beyond politics, there was mythology, and rival myths to live and die by: for some whites, the myth of white supremacy, and for others, the myth of brave and noble Africans in heroic struggle against unspeakable evil. If you were white, you had to embrace one of those two myths, and let it guide your way. If you believed in neither, the paradox fractured your skull and buried its poisonous claws in your brain.”

By the way, he's also a great sin
...more
Gugu
We read this book in my book club and it was by far the most free-flowing, heated and emotionally charged session.

How could it not be, seeing as it tackles the issues and history so close to home. We could all imagine our parents and grandparents experiences the atrocities that occurred during Apartheid. This book is very relevant for South Africa today and reveals all the things that have lead us to the precarious place we are in.

Some of the content is difficult to stomach, but it is written ve
...more
Amy
This was a heartbreaking book...hard to read and assimilate. The pain and agony of the social issues in SA are overwhelming...and finding a solution appears to be about impossible. This book gave me insight into the intertwined social/racial/economic issues...they are so complicated. Good book...gives an in depth picture of SA's issues.
Aaron
This book, written by a newspaperman, of an eminent Afrikaner family, is a great read. I think it adds a lot of insight into the contradictions present in a lot of places in Africa, which are perhaps more stark in SA. The desire to imbue African citizens with modern worldviews combined with the fact that behavior seen as downright antediluvian makes much of rural African political and cultural life hard for the foreigner to wrap her head around. Malan does a good job of trying to show both sides ...more
Jon Boorstin
This captures the cruel insanity of Apartheid from the inside. The best evocation of the cost on whites as well as the blacks, by an Afrikaaner whose family considered themselves pure African. Rian Malan sees with a clear eye, and he lives through it.
Michael
haiving lived in SA from 1976 to 1999, I lived through it all. Riaan Malan captures the Afrikaner phsyche and it's
a must must read for anyone who wants to know more about that complex and beautiful country - highly highly recommended
Stephanie
Feb 19, 2010 Stephanie is currently reading it
Malan is by far one of the most brutally honest and unapologetically pointed South African writers I've yet to come across. Finally something to read other than a sugar-coated coming of age story about SA's sordid past...
Brownshoebrian
Awesome. One of my favorite books. Written with a great sense of urgency and large helping of humility. Everyone should read this book in order to better understand Africa.
Jeffrey
Not much to say right now except holy shit, I could not put this book down. It's the best book I've ever read on South Africa and just a phenomenal piece of non-fiction.
Hilariapdx
I read this in grad school about 15 years ago. I devoured the story. What is that saying...Better a bleeding heart than no heart at all?
David Smith
Mixed feelings on this one. First half is a must read, second half tends to come apart at the seams.
EOB
Having finally closed it out after several fatigue hiatuses, I can say that _My Traitor's Heart_ is every bit as epic, problematic, challenging, privileged, narcissistic, and ultimately worthwhile as the jacket copy & quotes would suggest.

At best, Malan is an exceptional journalist and researcher, who achieves uncommon insight into his own unforgivable/inextricable complicity in the violence of colonial history & the (then) present Apartheid system and the inadequacies of his own respon
...more
orsodimondo
Come si combatte l'apartheid se quelli per cui lo fai ti vogliono morto perché sei bianco?
Chi sa perché i giornalisti, che sono abituati a contare le parole dei loro articoli per farli entrare in spazi precisi, quando hanno un libro sotto le mani perdono qualsiasi controllo e ritegno.
E' così, per fare solo un altro esempio, anche "Quando un coccodrillo mangia il sole" del giornalista Peter Godwin.
Rian Malan sbrodola gli stessi concetti una, due , tre e più volte - si ripete, affastella storie,
...more
Margitte
A shocking synopsis of a turbulent time in South African history,
very well written and an honest account of the white psyche, both liberal and conservative, when the last bastion of colonialism crashed down amidst international sanctions which was the only way to bring
the most powerful government down. The former government could not be beaten in any type of war effort from the outside.

Malan, however, demonstrates how these actual events were withheld by way of a moratorium on the press from the
...more
AJ
I really thought this book was fantastic. It was honest, and real, and really got into issues in South Africa that many were afraid to address at the time it was published (1990). It was written by someone who, by all history, should have been an ardent supporter of apartheid, coming from the Malan family - but he wasn't, at least he didn't want to be. What I thought was one of the most compelling parts of the book was the portrayal of fear as the thing that kept the racial divide going. He real ...more
FiveBooks
Writer Philip Gourevitch has chosen to discuss Rian Malan’s My Traitor's Heart on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Rwanda, saying that:

Malan is a really extraordinary writer, and he was writing, in late-apartheid South Africa, about killings by blacks of whites and by whites of blacks. A bit like police reporting, but also a memoir. It’s a hybrid form, grappling with what the violence tells us about the politics and what the culture tells you about the violence. It goes deep, d
...more
Sara-Maria Sorentino
Malan set out to write a book about his ancestors, about the whole lineage of Malans, who, after setting foot on the continent since the 17th century, fostered the bloody conditions and architected the policies for apartheid South Africa. During this genealogy, he swiftly moves into his childhood love for blacks that extended into his adult guilt and anti-apartheid activism, which make him in some ways the black sheep of the Malan clan and in many ways a variation on the same racist theme. The p ...more
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Rian Malan is a South African author, journalist, documentarist and songwriter of Afrikaner descent. He first rose to prominence as the author of the memoir My Traitor's Heart, which, like the bulk of his work, deals with South African society in a historical and contemporary perspective and focuses on racial relations. As a journalist, he has written for major newspapers in South Africa, Great Br ...more
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