Book Recommendation: The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Rian Malan
When I traveled to South Africa in 2009, I listened to a lot of music. The 30-hour trek was set to a score from artists ranging from Explosions in the Sky to Girl Talk. Shockingly, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” didn’t make it onto my iPod for that trip.
To me, that song was a pivotal element in Simba’s growing up scene in The Lion King. It was a cheesy old thing whose origins I didn’t know and didn’t care to know. It was likely a white man’s song about the African jungle – until it wasn’t.
In this collection of over 20 essays, renowned writer Rian Malan explores the state of contemporary South Africa. He also dispels misconceptions about many things that originate from his country. Among these is the aforementioned song, whose very mention is enough to get the wild howls and wails of the chorus and beyond stuck in your head for days. Assumed by many to be a Western song about the Dark Continent, Malan’s 2000 Rolling Stone essay proves otherwise. In the titular essay, Malan lays out the facts: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was recorded by a Zulu man named Soloman Linda in 1939. After selling the song for 10 shillings, it became a hit in America while Linda recovered zero royalties and died penniless.
This is only one story among many that speaks of a South Africa few of us – even those lucky enough to visit – can know. Though the essays range in length, publication and date, Malan’s voice, at once intelligent, sardonic and self-satisfied, remains constant. He writes with the authority of someone who has not only grown up in South Africa, but experienced and perhaps even influenced its evolution. An article in The Guardian states, “Malan was a member of perhaps the most notorious bloodline of the only white tribe of Africa. There had been Malans at the Battle of Majuba Hill. There were Malans on the Great Trek. His great uncle DF Malan had drafted the original apartheid laws. But Rian was different.”
That difference is evident in The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The essays therein are partly investigative, partly explorative, and completely evocative. Malan’s experience with South Africa is deeply personal, and his approach to knocking Nelson Mandela down a few notches, denying the extent of the AIDS epidemic and exposing the truth about a popular, catchy song is indicative of that. For anyone interested in the contemporary South African struggle and triumph, The Lion Sleeps Tonight is an engaging and enlightening read.
Now, to update my iPod…
Source: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.
Featured image via.