Reprise Books

‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ by Alan Paton

Slipping away: A scene from the movie adaptation  

In his two-volume autobiography, Towards the Mountain and Journey Continued, South African anti-apartheid writer Alan Paton talks at length of how he came to pen Cry, the Beloved Country in 1948.

He wrote his famous novel while on a trip to Europe to observe prison reform — Paton was head of a reformatory for black delinquents. During a visit to Norway’s Trondheim Cathedral as he sat in a pew opposite the rose window, “the light was shining behind it, and I was very moved and felt very homesick.”

He went back to his hotel and wrote the first lines of Cry, the sense of longing apparent: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo to the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” But we get a sense that all is not well, “as the earth has torn away like flesh.... The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them anymore.”

The violence, racial injustice, migrations and disruptions lurking on the horizon are told through the story of a Zulu minister in Natal, Stephen Kumalo, who searches for his sister Gertrude and son Absalom, with his deep secrets, in Johannesburg, from where nobody seems to return.

As Reverend Kumalo takes the train to the city, the “fear of the unknown” grips him — “Deep down the fear for his son. Deep down the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.” Kumalo finds his son in prison, for murdering a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who ironically felt for the natives and worked towards integration. Jarvis’s father and Kumalo make an unlikely connection after the tragedy — and a child brings hope.

Beauty and terror

Paton, writing a note for the 1987 edition, said “it is a story about the beauty and terror of human life...” The title comes from lines spoken in the book, “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply.... For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

In life, Paton worked for reconciliation, serving as head of the multi-racial Liberal Party which was later dissolved after South Africa passed legislation against mixed parties. His liberal views — though he wasn’t for sanctions — notwithstanding, he gave us a devastating portrayal of rupture between communities in the apartheid era.

A character in Cry echoes the white man’s predicament: “We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors...; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego.... And our lives will shrink.” He died in 1988, before apartheid ended in 1994.

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 11:20:41 AM |

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