Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cry, The Beloved Country / by Alan Paton

"Cry, the beloved country,
for the unborn child
that is the inheritor of our fear.
Let him not love the earth too deeply.
Let him not laugh too gladly
when the water runs through his fingers,
nor stand too silent when the setting sun
makes red the veld with fire.
Let him not be too moved
when the birds of his land are singing,
nor give too much of his heart
to a mountain or a valley.
For fear will rob him of all
if he gives too much." (p. 102)
"The truth is, our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions." (p. 187)
The Reverend Stephen Kumalo is a farmer and lay minister in the South African province of Natal when he one day receives a letter requesting his presence in Johannesburg. The message informs Kumalo of the whereabouts and ill condition of his sister Gertrude who, along with Kumalo's son Absalom (who'd originally been sent to search for Gertrude), have neither returned home nor contacted Kumalo and his wife since their departure ("When people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back" p. 38). Kumalo arrives in the capital to discover that Gertrude has taken up a life of prostitution and is now drinking heavily, having dissipated herself to the point of bedrest to the neglect of her young son. After convincing his sister to return home with her child, Kumalo begins to search for his son with the aid of Msimangu, an Anglican priest, first encountering his estranged brother John, a carpenter who's become involved in city politics, before catching on to Absalom's trail. Kumalo and Msimangu learn that Absalom has, among other things, been in a reformatory recently, that he's impregnated a young girl and is now under arrest for the murder (during a botched burglary) of Arthur Jarvis, a white anti-apartheid journalist and social activist who is also, coincidentally, the son of Kumalo's Natal neighbor James Jarvis.
Paton's impassioned novel, published at the inception of Apartheid, is tremendous. A moving masterpiece to be sure, it is at the same time a universal fable of redemption, an ageless treatise on race, an anthemic paragon and indispensable treasure of world literature. Cry, The Beloved Country is among the most compelling of human stories, as breathtakingly poetic as it is stunningly captivating. Kumalo’s journey is the journey of one man and yet it is every man’s life. The gambit of emotion, the encumbrance of the human condition and reality of man’s coarse and conflicted nature unfolds with every encounter. Fear and joy, anger and love, selfishness and generosity, deceit and friendship, suffering and compassion are all envived in the context, capturing the reality of Paton’s South Africa and illuminating the problematic verisimilitude of the world at large. Historically, the book portrays the devastating effects of Apartheid on all South Africans, its blatant discrimination, internal destruction, and lasting impact as well as the resilient determination on behalf of a proud few to overcome their national blight. The author unveils human nature as a stubborn beast, but there is hope for South Africa. Man is an ignoble creature, but capable of compassion; imperfect and severely limited, but rich in hope and potential. It’s this truth which gives the novel its deft value, revealing life at its ugliest and its most redeeming, from degradation to transcendence, desolation to abundance, and wretchedness to beauty. (FIC PATON)

1 comment:

Librarian the Luke said...

Paton seems to me the perfect example of a writer surpassing the work that inspired him. In this case, Paton has said he was inspired by Grapes of Wrath, which is an excellent work, but I far prefer Cry.