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

4.22  ·  Rating Details ·  2,458 Ratings  ·  160 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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Disgrace by J.M. CoetzeeDreams Come True by Bridgitte LesleyLong Walk to Freedom by Nelson MandelaCry, the Beloved Country by Alan PatonMy Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Petra Eggs
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
Helen (Helena/Nell)
Apr 08, 2012 Helen (Helena/Nell) rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 22, 2012 Richard rated it it was amazing
Shelves: africa
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
Dec 31, 2012 Joe rated it it was amazing
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
David Wurzburg
Jun 23, 2008 David Wurzburg rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 27, 2014 Josh Friedlander rated it it was amazing
Shelves: africa
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
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
Jan 14, 2012 Alisa rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 15, 2013 Dan rated it really liked it
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
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
Oct 24, 2013 Wren rated it really liked it
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
Jan 17, 2016 orsodimondo rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sudafrica
Come si combatte l'apartheid se quelli per cui lo fai ti vogliono morto perché sei bianco?
Secondo me i giornalisti, siccome sono costretti a contare le parole per fare entrare i loro articoli in spazi precisi, quando hanno un libro sotto le mani perdono qualsiasi controllo e ritegno (un altro esempio è "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, di ognuna racconta l'antefat
Oct 01, 2011 Joel rated it really liked it
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
Jul 18, 2012 Matt rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 16, 2011 Gugu rated it really liked it
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
Apr 28, 2012 Tim rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 30, 2009 Amy rated it really liked it
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 an in depth picture of SA's issues.
Jani Allan
Aug 12, 2015 Jani Allan rated it it was amazing
I attended the book launch of MTH in London some 25 years ago. The book has lost none of its impact. As a young, white reporter, Rian writes about the willful self-binding that is central to the Afrikaner tribe. The book begins with a question - 'How do I live in this strange place?' - and describes in detail how very strange it is.
Aug 09, 2012 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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...
David Smith
Jul 25, 2011 David Smith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mixed feelings on this one. First half is a must read, second half tends to come apart at the seams.
Dec 14, 2008 Hilariapdx rated it it was amazing
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?
Jan 15, 2011 Brownshoebrian rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 13, 2008 Jeffrey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Nov 26, 2016 Booked rated it it was amazing
Wow. Reading this book was a stirring experience, and sometimes difficult. I have never read anything quite like it before. I learned, I unlearned, I despaired, and I hoped through the words on the page, which seemed wrung from a tortured heart, but searingly clear-sighted. Everyone should read this. It was published before the end of apartheid, so now I am eager to see if Malan has written anything else more recently.
Oct 16, 2016 Mac rated it it was amazing
Favorite book of the year. Incredible descriptions and analysis. The way Malan works with time is incredible and between relating his case to his ancestors and then to greater humanity puts him among the great writers of our time. Jaw dropping, gritty, hopeful and crushingly sad, Malan created a masterpiece.
Jun 01, 2008 Sara-Maria rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 15, 2015 Korkodus rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-favs, home-shelves
South Africa is magical - both metaphorically and literally.
My trip there made me fall in love with the little touristy things that I could see, do, experience but somehow I can vaguely relate to few lines, here and there, in the book: the fear, the magic, the incredible co-living of the whites and blacks but yes, the non-mix, the wilderness of a waitress wearing her tribe's tattoo and bringing my menu in Hilton while I was meeting my English friend (herself the first generation in South Africa)
May 24, 2011 EOB rated it liked it
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
Sep 18, 2015 AJ rated it it was amazing
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
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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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