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Cry, the Beloved Country

A 1948 novel by Alan Paton

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Trying to Talk about Evil and Good

  • Sep 23, 2010
Alan Paton was a very great man. In addition to being an author, he spent many years managing a large reformatory, bringing to the inmates some amazingly humane ways of doing things. If prison is intended to reform criminals, to make them happy and productive members of society, Paton was one of the most successful penologists in history. That he did this in South Africa with a group of predominately black inmates, just before apartheid became law, makes his achievement all the more remarkable. It also placed him in a unique position to write "Cry, the Beloved Country".

Most of the story follows Stephen Kumalo, a clergyman in a small village whose son Absalom, like many of the young people, has raced off to Johannesburg where things are happening. They sure are; Reverend Stephen travels there to find his sister and discovers in the meantime that Absalom is under arrest for murdering a white man while in the process of burglarizing his home. The victim, Arthur Jarvis, has been a leader in the movement toward equal rights in South Africa. Doubling this irony is the fact that the victim is also the son of a white landowner near Reverend Kumalo's village.

In other words, this is an impossible story to tell. You know what's going to happen; whether the young man is executed or not, everyone's going to behave in that terribly noble manner. The black folks in particular, whether submissive or angry, will all show themselves in the best possible light, and many of the white folks will do the same. There will be reconciliation and copious tears. We readers will come away from this novel enlightened, feeling wonderful about the brotherhood of man. Disgusting.

Not quite. Although Paton didn't manage to avoid that halo altogether, he steered clear of it surprisingly well. Neither Kumalo nor Jarvis, Arthur's father, could possibly live where they do without thinking about racial issues, but Paton is magnificent at showing how ambivalent their thoughts can be. As is always the case with good fiction, these characters behave like real people - they have no pure element within them, neither pure good nor pure evil, neither pure love of the black or white population nor pure hatred - and the more real they are, the more we can identify with them. When you read a novel you want to immerse yourself in it, and you can only do that if it rings true. (That goes for novels of the fantastic as well, by the way, but we'll talk about that some other time.)

Speaking of immersing yourself in a novel, Paton's language here shows that he would probably have made a great poet. The descriptions are wonderful, whether applied to great beauty or great misery, and he gave each character a highly individual voice, something many authors neglect. And then there's the fact that he shows us the people's thoughts in similarly gorgeous language, reflecting deep feelings, in what was clearly an African idiom rather than the clich├ęs of melodrama. It's touching to see that he respected his characters to that extent, as he seems to have respected the real people of his nation.

As the title implies, this novel describes the landscape in some detail - not so much as to drag, but enough to show that one can truly fall in love with a place. Personally, I've always been more concerned with a story's characters than its environment, but this is one of the comparatively few that have really shown me how powerful setting can be. "Cry" starts out with a description of a road to Reverend Kumalo's village, which the narrator describes as "lovely". Not a word you would ordinarily associate with a road, and it shows the people's attachment to their place. The surprise is that loving a place, according to Paton and his characters, is not necessarily such a good thing. It gives you too much to lose, especially if the place you love is full of pain and fear. That, rather than the uplifting journey that these people go through towards enlightenment, is the real power of this novel, lending some heft to its themes and preventing the plot from drifting off into the glowing pink clouds.

Those themes are dangerous. Anyone who tries to write fiction about enormous historical events, like apartheid, runs the risk of having the theme dwarf the story. Paton's strategy is brilliant - his characters think about things like race relations, but rarely talk about those things. Jarvis in particular, even after the death of his son, speaks very rarely about what he thinks of his black neighbors or the black African peoples. In fact, he speaks very rarely about anything at all. His actions change radically, though. Even Reverend Kumalo keeps his mouth pretty well shut about race relations. Like a good clergyman, he talks a good deal about God, but what with the troubles of his sister and son, his reflections on God became less certain as time goes on, until finally his most moving action about God takes place in utter silence.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said "What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence", a demand that all too many people fail to obey. I mean, any speech regarding certain subjects, like apartheid, diminishes those subjects, but you have to deal with them somehow, don't you? I said that Alan Paton was a great man, and this is not only because of his courage in facing down a great evil, but also because he found a way to write a great novel about a subject which should ideally be met with respectful silence. At the very least, "Cry, the Beloved Country" works because it concerns two men who confront that subject with respectful silence, and its author showed us why that is the proper response.

Benshlomo says, if you must talk about the big subjects, at least do so with care.

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September 27, 2010
This one has been on my TBR list for a long time. I really enjoyed your review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about such a timeless classic!
More Cry, the Beloved Country reviews
Quick Tip by . July 15, 2010
My all-time favorite book. Such an interesting means of telling the story and so gripping.
Quick Tip by . June 05, 2010
An extraordinary novel by Alan Paton that looks at racial relationships in South Africa. In addition to its social message, the book is about two fathers coming to terms with their sons' fates and learning to forgive each other in order to redeem themselves. Both lyrical and poignant, this is another classic of the past century.
review by . January 25, 2001
Of the (literally) thousands of books I have read in my life, this is still my favorite. I first read it as a freshman in high school (in 1960, when apartheid was still the law of South Africa), and the sheer beauty of the language took away my breath. The words were so powerful that I memorized many portions of the text, just so I would be able to repeat the words aloud whenever I wished. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, I gave a presentation to my senior English class, and began it with the …
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About this book


In search of missing family members, Zulu priest Stephen Kumalo leaves his South African village to traverse the deep and perplexing city of Johannesburg in the 1940s. With his sister turned prostitute, his brother turned labor protestor and his son, Absalom, arrested for the murder of a white man, Kumalo must grapple with how to bring his family back from the brink of destruction as the racial tension throughout Johannesburg hampers his attempts to protect his family. With a deep yet gentle voice rounded out by his English accent, Michael York captures the tone and energy of this novel. His rhythmic narration proves hypnotizing. From the fierce love of Kumalo to the persuasive rhetoric of Kumalo's brother and the solemn regret of Absalom, York injects soul into characters tempered by their socioeconomic status as black South Africans.(May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.--This text refers to theAudio CDedition.
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ISBN-10: 074326195X
ISBN-13: 978-0743261951
Author: Alan Paton
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Scribner
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"My all-time favorite"
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