REVIEW: Return of Rian Malan, the Aids bore
- Branko Brkic
- 23 Dec 2009 12:00 (South Africa)
On November 10th, Rian Malan launched a collection of journalism under the title Resident Alien, his first book since My Traitor’s Heart was published in 1990. The collection, quite simply, is outstandingly good. It was also supposed to be Malan’s last word on inflated Aids stats. Quite simply, it wasn’t.
When Rian Malan emails group missives to his friends about Aids statistics, as he does from time to time, he titles them something like, “Return of the Aids bore”. The first one I received was in late 2007, and the contents included an update from the United Nations on infection numbers in Africa, which had recently been revised so significantly downwards that mainstream media were too dumbstruck to comment. Of course Malan, ever true to character, was not casting his lot in with mainstream media. He had committed the better part of a decade to uncovering the truth about the disease, had been vilified by activists and denialists alike, had even lost a marriage because of his self-proclaimed “addiction,” and now the numbers were bearing his theories out. Ask yourself: would you have kept quiet?
It’s no coincidence that the core of Resident Alien, Malan’s new journalism collection and his first book since 1990’s My Traitor’s Heart, is dedicated to a topic that for many readers did irreparable harm to his reputation. Resident Alien’s middle forty pages are the writer’s transparent response to those who scornfully dismissed him, his final and comprehensive full-stop on a subject that began with a commission from Rolling Stone magazine in early 2000 – the brief: to write about Thabo Mbeki’s descent into Aids madness.
As such, Malan reveals an important secret in the postscript that bisects these pages. The piece that was delivered in December 2000 to that venerable San Francisco-based publication – the journal that was “made by” and in turn “made” Hunter S. Thompson – was not what founder Jann Wenner or editor Bill Tonelli had in mind. Malan, you see, had written the two gentlemen a letter that opened with the endearing salutation, “Yo Bill”. It ran to almost 10,000 words, and ended with the following: “So what’s the right policy? The answer, as always, lies in Africa’s Aids estimates – 16 million dead, last time I checked, and the toll rising daily. If these numbers are accurate, desperate measures are needed. But what if they aren’t? Feel free to publish this, but if it bored you to death, I’ll understand. Yours, Malan.”
Famously, what Malan had suggested in the body of his letter was that Aids statistics in Africa had been grossly over-exaggerated. Increasing numbers of HIV infections meant crisis, he wrote, and crisis meant funding. At the time, such sentiments were tantamount to blasphemy amongst America’s left-wing intelligentsia, a circumstance about which Malan, Wenner and Tonelli were all too aware. But by then Malan’s persona had for years been of the type that his only choice was to “call it as he saw it,” even if Wenner and Tonelli – for whatever reason – were of a different type. “Who agrees with you?” they asked. When Malan answered “no-one,” they chopped the letter to shreds. In the writer’s words, the resulting article was “dull and lifeless, so full of equivocations and digressions as to be barely readable.”
The piece as it appears in Resident Alien is the original. It has not been seen by anyone, save for the writer, a handful of his friends, and a few editors and researchers in the employ of Rolling Stone. It is classic Malan.
As he does in all his best pieces, as he did in My Traitor’s Heart, what Malan achieves in “The Body Count” is an uncannily authentic evocation of the extent of his own doubt. This is where the dramatic tension in his writing lies, this is where his power as a narrative artist is hidden, and if the man and his prose were not as unified as they are, the name Rian Malan would not be anywhere near as globally recognisable as it is today. (Anton Harber’s contention that Malan is famous because he’s a contrarian is, of course, incorrect.)
So back, then, to the article at hand. Malan’s purpose when he set out to write “The Body Count” was to do exactly as Rolling Stone had asked: in short, to deliver Mbeki’s head on a platter. It was July 2000, and the South African president had just made his stupendous remarks about the shaky relationship between HIV and Aids, so the task appeared easy. All Malan had to do was “doff the hat to journalistic objectivity and briefly consider the evidence that had led our leader astray.” Not being a scientist, however, many of the arguments were incomprehensible to him, and he quickly figured that the best way to settle the matter was to study the mortality rates in African countries hardest hit by the epidemic. Which was exactly when his fabled doubt set in.
From computer models in Geneva to coffin makers in downtown Johannesburg, from a hilltop village in Uganda (where Africa’s first reported outbreak of Aids took place) to faulty HIV testing in the Amazon, Malan chases down his story. At each juncture a part of him – the languid part, the part where 999 out of a thousand journalists would happily quit – tells him he’s got the solution, but his doubt pushes him further. In the end, not even the rapid rise since 1998 of registered deaths in South Africa is enough to satisfy him: he tracks down a demographer whose in-depth tests have concluded that “increased reporting accounts for an unknown proportion of the apparent rise in mortality.”
The piece reads like a thriller. And the remarkable thing about it is that it’s true. Aids statistics around the world – but in India and sub-Saharan Africa especially – had indeed been grossly over-exaggerated. As already indicated, the United Nations admitted as much in November 2007, after Dr. James Chin, former head of the World Health Organisation’s global programme on Aids (1987 to 1992), and Drs. Edward Green and Daniel Halperin, formerly with the Aids units of USAID, had accumulated and published enough data to force their hand. One wonders what would have happened had Rolling Stone had the balls to run Malan’s original piece in 2000, the one with the riveting plot line and doubt-filled narrator, the one where the narrative wasn’t mangled by double-guessing and prevarication.
A caveat seems wise at this point: none of the above is intended in any way as grist to the mill of the denialists. Malan does not doubt the existence or the seriousness of the disease, and neither do I. In countless sentences and passages, many of which appear in Resident Alien, he has spoken of the terrible tragedy of HIV/Aids, as have I in one or two less well-read pieces of published prose. The issue under current discussion, it must be stressed, is political and economic. As Malan signed off on an article for The Spectator in December 2003 (which also appears in Resident Alien): “I think it is time to start questioning some of the claims made by the Aids lobby. Their certainties are so fanatic, the powers they claim so far-reaching. All their authority derives from computer-generated estimates which they wield like weapons… Give them their head, and they will commandeer all resources to fight just one disease. Who knows, they may defeat Aids, but what if we wake up five years hence to discover that the problem has been blown out of all proportion by unsound estimates, causing upwards of US$20-billion to be wasted?”
Well, we have woken up five or so years hence, and the man’s been proven right. And while the revised figures may not have done much to curb the fanaticism of the Aids lobbyists, who continue to siphon a portion of the funds that are desperately needed for other diseases, the good thing is that we now have Malan’s new book. Perhaps it will help.
If not, there are the other pieces that make Resident Alien well worth its R185 cover price. Three amongst dozens that are equally deserving bear a mention: “In the Jungle,” the piece that partly inspired Disney to settle Solomon Linda’s heirs on the royalties for a song that became known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight; “Prince of Darkness,” inarguably the best non-interview profile piece on JM Coetzee ever written; and “The Last Afrikaner,” an extraordinarily gripping yarn about a white Tannie living with her Boere traditions and black children in rural Tanzania.
I should end here, I know, but I can’t help myself. Last week, just two days after the launch of Resident Alien at the Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg, Malan sent out another one of those group missives to his friends. It was aptly titled “Aids bore returns from death,” and its contents went like so:
“Last week President Zuma revealed an utterly dumbfounding 'fact' – Aids caused a staggering 32 percent surge in registered deaths in 2008. This meant more than 180,000 more deaths last year than in 2007. The story made global headlines. It looked as if the apocalypse so long predicted had at last arrived.
“Early this week the Minister of Health repeated the numbers at a press briefing. Again, mass coverage resulted.
“I'm always ready to eat my hat, but experience has taught me NEVER to trust an Aids bwana. So I started making calls. StatsSA were clueless, but I eventually got an explanation from Dr. Debbie Bradshaw at the MRC in Cape Town. She said, ‘I don't know where the problem lies but Zuma somehow got the numbers wrong. The Minister of Health too. Somebody transposed two digits. Somebody must be dyslexic. We will forward a memo on the subject to the health minister.’
“In other words, there is no apocalypse. No massive Aids-related death surge. If anything, death registrations are stable.
“So heads up. This country is full of HIV consultants and researchers and specialist HIV hacks who are paid lots of money on account of their supposed expertise. The state president says that the Aids equivalent of an atom bomb has detonated among our people AND THERE'S NO REACTION AT ALL FROM ANY OF THEM. They all knew, like I did, that Zuma's number was bullshit, but they were perfectly happy to let it stand, ‘cos big Aids numbers are good for business, innit? NOT ONE OF THOSE MOTHERS SAID ANYTHING!!!!!!!! They think you are stupid and want to keep you that way.
“This is probably as close to a correction as you'll ever get. So – your choice. Stay stupid, or send it on.
“The Aids Bore”
In a phone conversation last night to follow up on a few facts with Malan, he mumbled something to me about the Treatment Action Campaign publicly announcing that Zuma’s figures were wrong. I couldn’t find anything on the ‘net to that effect, and given the deadlines of this medium, we’re now compelled to run the review. The Daily Maverick invites the TAC, or any other interested party, to comment on Malan’s email.
By Kevin Bloom
Resident Alien is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, at 336 pages. Retail price is R185. The book is available at stores nationwide
Disclosure: Rian Malan was a regular contributor to The Daily Maverick’s forebear (and now extinct) monthly print publications, Maverick and Empire. Some of the pieces that he wrote for the magazines appear in Resident Alien. Kevin Bloom was an early reader of the manuscript of Resident Alien, and Malan supplied a cover shout for Bloom’s book, Ways of Staying.
Main photo credit: Book.co.za