Alan Paton is our first Voice to consider in the anti-apartheid genre; his sensitive, poetic rhythms contrast the gentle Zulu syllables against the harsher Afrikaans and English words. The disparity of languages is his setting to explain the inexplicable: how people came to hurt one another over the colour of their skin. Paton’s writing is beautifully repetitious, catching phrases that resonate throughout the book, literally translating passages of Zulu for the non-speaker, and imparting the languid feel of those living far from the city rush. Interestingly, many foreign reviewers compare Paton’s prose to Biblical English, not recognizing the correlation to the bantu roots. (Paton was fluent in Zulu and worked for thirteen years as principal of a reformatory for delinquent “African” boys.)
“Cry, the Beloved Country” came out in September 1948, before apartheid was official law in South Africa. It did not take long for authorities to detect the fire and beauty in the work, for Truth is Beauty, and it was banned. Many of us growing up outside South Africa read it in school, but with little enough explanation, for our teachers themselves did not understand the depth of the problem or pain Paton was describing. He may have been trying to alert the world to the coming crisis, but he wrote for South Africans.
Read these first three sentences of the book aloud, and you will feel the call of the bush veld and a lonely sense of something precious that is coming to an end:
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. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.
These sentences launch two paragraphs which preface parts one and two. “Cry, the Beloved Country” is written in three parts, the first two telling almost parallel stories of two fathers (one black and one white) and their two sons. Both fathers’s hearts are broken, both sons’ lives are destroyed. The final part is an elongated epilogue which is Paton’s attempt to offer a solution for individuals because he can not see a way clear for a national solution.
Part One is the story of the Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo, going to Johannesburg to seek out his wayward sister, Gertrude, and his prodigal son, Absalom. It reads slowly and gently, for Kumalo is old and tired. Despite his weakness, Kumalo is able to contact those who help him in his quest. Although we readers push at the pace, the book cannot be rushed. Words must be said in certain ways and we are restrained by Paton:
They come out of the Court, the white on one side, the black on the other, according to the custom. But the young white man breaks the custom, and he and Msimangu help the old and broken man, one on each side of him. It is not often that such a custom is broken. It is only when there is a deep experience that such a custom is broken. The young man’s brow is set, and he looks fiercely before him. That is partly because it is a deep experience, and partly because of the custom that is being broken. For such a think is not lightly done. (p 186)
Part Two is the story of James Jarvis, Esquire of High Place farm, which stands high above Ndosheni, the parish of Kumalo. The language and pace pick up considerably, as he, too, finds himself reluctantly going to Johannesburg.
The Homeric quality of this story, two fathers and sons, playing out their roles, unaware of one another, holds everything together. And there are Shakespearean near-misses that frustrate us, just as they do in his plays. No, it is not hyperbole to compare these elements in Paton to Homer and Shakespeare because his tragedy is rooted in the pain and suffering of his beloved country. Paton’s love for and agony over his country is palpable. He uses the writings of Jarvis’ son to send his own message to South Africans. A message they could not read, because his book was banned:
We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo. We shall forgo the coming home drunken through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown. And the conscience shall be thrust down; the light of life shall not be extinguished, but be put under a bushel, to be preserved for a generation that will live by it again, in some day not yet come; and how it will come, and when it will come, we shall not think about at all. (p 77)
Paton’s prophecy proved all too true. Lives shrank and people lived in fear: black and white. Half a century of brutal oppression followed these words. His metaphor of the light which shall not be extinguished, but put under a bushel, is the familiar Biblical parable. But it also refers to the word Afrikaans speakers used to describe themselves: “Doppers, after the little metal caps with which they snuffed out candles. They called themselves Doppers because they were deliberately and consciously extinguishing the light . . .so that they could do what they had to do in darkness.” (Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart)
Paton was a devout man and this work is is trumpet call to remind his countrymen that their faith could not be reconciled to what they were doing to their fellow human beings:
Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. Is it strange then that our civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma? The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions. (p 145)
Paton tells us what we need to hear, gently, attempting to give two points of view: the Black country dweller and the British city dweller. He does not try to communicate the Afrikaans perspective or the Black township culture. He limits himself to what he knows well; his sensitive, lyrical writing is easy to read and enigmatic at the same time:
The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if a Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just. (p 147)