Alan Paton

"Cry, The Beloved Country"

(Reviewed by Wenkai Tay JAN 11, 2004)

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Drama forms the core of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country. But so resonant is Paton's work that even calling it "drama" sounds shallow. Paton is not interested in drama for the sake of entertainment or a good story; he seeks to represent the drama of life itself, of love and hate, of fear and greed, and of the power of forgiveness.

Set in South Africa, the novel opens with Reverend Stephen Kumalo preparing to make a journey to Johannesburg. His sister Gertrude and his son Absalom left the countryside village of Ndotsheni some time ago in search of better job prospects. But Kumalo has not heard from them for a long time. Upon receiving a letter from Reverend Msimangi in Johannesburg telling of Gertrude's whereabouts, Kumalo ventures into the great city to look for her and Absalom.

When Kumalo arrives at Johannesburg, he is heartbroken to find his sister living as a prostitute, and his son arrested for the murder of a white man. His efforts to rebuild the tribe and return to Ndotsheni seem futile. Desperately, he flails to save the life of his son, who will almost certainly be sentenced to death for his crime.

Powerful emotions propel the plot forward, set against the turmoil in South Africa during the 1940s and 1950s. The country is in great pain; its inhabitants see no way out of their quandary. Yet the land itself, with its vast, rolling plains, offers a glimmer of hope and promise.

As heartachingly beautiful as the continent of Africa itself, Alan Paton's poetic prose evokes the majestic cadence of the King James Bible. Such a serious style, after all, is befitting of an examination of such weighty issues and strong emotions.

Paton describes South Africa - the beloved country - as a land fractured with hatred. The disenfranchised blacks carry out violent crimes against the whites, plunging Johannesburg into fear. The whites are at a loss as to what to do. "Who knows how we shall fashion a land of peace where black outnumbers white so greatly? . For we fear not only the loss of our possessions, but the loss of our superiority and the loss of our whiteness. Some say it is true that crime is bad, but would this not be worse? Is it not better to hold what we have, and to pay the price of it with fear? And others say, can such fear be endured? For is it not this fear that drives men to ponder these things at all?" They know that education could improve the black people's condition, and hence reduce crime. But they fear that an educated black population would be difficult to control, and harder to exploit. Thus, the cycle of destruction is allowed to continue.

Throughout his narrative, Paton describes so vividly the problems that plagued South Africa during the apartheid era that the reader is left completely disillusioned. But, using the story of Reverend Kumalo as a symbol for the restoration of South Africa, Paton shows there is still hope. For while fear may be a powerful emotion, love is yet more powerful: love holds the power to heal the people's deep-set wounds.

Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country remains relevant for modern readers, given the parallels between South Africa in the 1940s and the world today. Fear of terrorist attacks have gripped the globe, as the war against terror wages on. Despite all this violence and gloom, Cry reminds us that in each one of us there is the potential to do good. We have the power to change the world; pity if we lack the will to do so.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 221 reviews

Chapter excerpt from Cry, The Beloved Country at Simon & Schuster



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About the Author:

Alan PatonAlan Paton was born in Natal, in the east of South Africa in 1903. His father was James Paton, a Scot who had emigrated to South Africa in 1895. His mother was Eunice Warder James Paton, the daughter of English immigrants. His father was a deeply religious Christian and a strict authoritarian. His disciplinary practices led Alan Paton to despise and openly oppose all forms of authoritarianism.

After studies at the University of Natal, Paton worked as a teacher at the Ixopo High School for White Students and then at a high school in Pietermaritzburg. He married Dorrie Lusted in 1928 and she died in 1967, after which he married his secretary Anne Hopkins.

In 1935, he was appointed the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory of African Juvenile Delinquents in 1935 where he was introduced to controversial progressive reforms. In the mid-40s he went on a tour of prisons and reformatories in Sweden, Norway and North America. He begin the novel Cry, The Beloved Country in Norway in 1946 and finished that same year in San Francisco on Christmas Eve. After this book published, he was able to resign from his job to write and later to become involved in politics.

He became the founder and president of the Liberal Party (1953-68), which opposed apartheid and offered a non-racial alternative to government policy. The party was banned in 1968 by the Prohibition of Political Interference Bill, and Paton was harassed by the racist government. On the other hand Paton's gentle Christian-liberal solution to the problems of South Africa was considered hopelessly inadequate by anti-apartheid activists.

Paton died on April 12, 1988, in his home near Durban, Natal.

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