Friday, April 8, 2011

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Gorgeous, lyric, Cry, the Beloved Country published in 1948 has a narrative pull seemingly drawn from both the clarity of the storytelling and the complexity of its subject matter--black struggle in the time of apartheid in South Africa--but also from the strength of its characters and the simultaneous simplicity and depth of the often lyric writing. An old Zulu pastor, Stephen Kumalo, leaves his village Ndotsheni (peopled only by old men and old women, children and babies, for the men have all left, to work and live in the mining compounds or in shanty towns in Johannesburg) in search of his son, whom he discovers ultimately has just committed the unspeakable, the murder of a young white man in Johannesburg, a man, moreover, who has been working for justice for the blacks, and who is the son of the white farmer who owns the arable land above their village. In his search he encounters people, both black and white, who offer him friendship and sustenance; in his turn, he makes his own rescues, offering a home to his "gone-to-the bad" sister and her child, and to the pregnant girlfriend of his son. Jarvis, the father of the slain man, undergoes his own transformations as he comes to understand his dead son through his writings, and begins to work possibly in his memory to help the people of the village, Ndotsheni.

The story is about allegiance, community, and friendship but also about betrayal, as Kumalo's son is abandoned by his accomplices on their arrest, and compelled to face his trial alone. Kumalo too is abandoned by his brother in this, for his son was one of the accomplices--the brother, a public speaker and open critic of the white use and exploitation of black labor, thereby displaying an interesting underside to his character. The whole issue of black crime being examined though, as an offshoot of white treatment of blacks--the forced segregations, the breaking of the tribe and the family--and the various plausible reactions within it--Absalom's fear and confession, his friends' lies, the white court's conviction of Absalom and the levying of the ultimate sentence, amid the backdrop of the unsuccessful mining strikes, the white managers' fear and tight control, the fear the white residents have of the "natives"--offered as part of the spectrum of inequity dominant in the country's narrative. Echoes of Native Son (Richard Wright) in storyline and dramatic center.

Underlying it all is the beauty of the country and its landscapes, a desolate beauty for the people who live in it are suffering. Some of the most beautiful passages in the book arise from the intermittently-used omniscient voice speaking as if to the country, and speaking out of its witness. I liked especially the book's structure and its shifting use of perspective, particularly its striking, unusual use of the larger omniscient addressing stark realities in South Africa interspersed with the more intimate limited-omniscient hovering chiefly over Kumalo and Jarvis, but I was also compelled by the iambic, almost-biblical (Old Testament) tone and rhythm and meter to the narrative.

From its mystical opening: " There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it" to the rise and return of the omniscient voice with its powerful words: "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 valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much," the language in the book, born of voice, drives the narrative and keeps you deep in the center of the story.

Intense and moving character portrayal too; the characters of Kumalo and Jarvis feel tangible by the end of the book. The novel has been widely celebrated and lavishly praised and made into a movie, available in audio, etc.  Highly recommended. Makes me want to go read all of Alan Paton's other work now...