Thursday, July 7, 2016

Alan Paton, "Cry, the Beloved Country" A Very Slow Read on My Part

Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” was one of several books on the summer reading list for an English High School course over five decades ago. You remember those lists, don’t you? Ours had Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and 1 or 2 other seemingly 1,000 page Dostoevsky’s tomes), Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Kafka’s The Trial, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, and I can’t remember the rest – maybe George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, because I know we all read them. We can be slow readers at times. Cry, the Beloved Country was a very slow read – 53 years in fact. That’s about as slow as it gets. Even a sloth reads faster. I got to around page 50 that summer and put it down. I just couldn’t go any farther. It made no sense. It was boring. I did Dostoevsky; what more could the teacher ask of me? Where were the Clift Notes when we needed them? Of course, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic- an immediate, and continued best seller. Alan Paton was writing about the rabid segregationist polices of South Africa and the impoverishment of the black majority. He writes about the poverty, the leaking roof of the black church, the hopelessness, pathos and despair of the people. He writes about the 1943 Alexandra/Johannesburg Bus Strike, where the poor blacks, young, old, healthy, infirm would walk up to nine miles each way in protest of a one penny fare increase. One cent, twice a day, several times weekly, was a substantial portion of their earnings He talks about the young blacks going to Johannesburg, only to disappear in the city. The book was globally viewed as an outcry against Apartheid. It opened the world’s eyes against the sordid treatment of South African blacks. Ironically, Alan Paton started writing the book in Norway in 1946 and published it in 1948 four months before the National Party gained control of Parliament and enacted Apartheid. Alan Paton wrote about pre-Apartheid South Africa, analogous to the plight of the emancipated former slaves in Dixie after the Civil War. America’s blacks had one major option. They could join the Great Migration out of Dixie. The streets of Detroit may not have been paved with gold, but Detroit, of the automobile industry, offered good employment to thousands of African Americans. So too with Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the other growing areas of America. Their children had a greater opportunity to get an education and a job outside the South. The blacks in South Africa had little opportunity for advancement. Apartheid shut the doors on them. They were trapped in Apartheid. Alan Paton knew what he was writing about. He started as a teacher and then served as Superintendent of the Diepkloof Reformatory (for blacks) from 1933 to the success of his book. He saw the pathos of the young black generation in South Africa. He was the global voice of opposition to Apartheid prior to Nelson Mandela. Indeed, the government lifted his passport from 1960 to 1970. He served as President of the small Liberal Party from 1953 until its disbandment in 1968, when a new Apartheid statute forbade the existence of political parties with mixed races. So here I am, over 5 decades later, when I passed a large bookstore in the V & A Waterfront Mall in Cape Town. A siren voice called to me. It said “Cry, the Beloved Country;” You must. An overpowering force field pulled me in. Miss Brash or Mr. Englander, or whoever the English teacher was, would be proud. There was a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country in plain view, with seemingly my name on it in flashing lights. The time had come. I finished the book, starting back on page 1. This time it was an easy read – no putting it down. Here’s the quick plot in 241 words: Stephan Kumalo, an elderly Zulu Minister, gets a letter from a minister in Johannesburg, asking him to come to find his sister Gertrud who is ailing. Kumalo also seeks his son, Absalom, who also vanished in the milieu of the big city. The long trek begins as lead after lead is pursued to seeking Absalom. The son is arrested with two accomplishes for killing Arthur Jarvis, a young, rising lawyer opposed to the segregationist policies of South Africa. Absalom admits to pulling the trigger, but with no intent to kill. He is convicted, sentenced to death, and reconciles with his father. In addition, prior to his execution, he is allowed to marry the young girl who is bearing his child. Stephan has also found Gertrude, who has a young child and agrees to return home with the minister. She had sunk into working as an alcohol serving prostitute. She seeks the light and does not return. Instead, she becomes a nun, or so we are led to believe. Reverent Kumalo returns home with the child and his pregnant daughter in law. He has temporarily lost faith, but returns to the fold. Arthur Jarvis is the son of James Jarvis, a successful farmer in Reverend Kumalo’s village. Arthur’s young son comes crosses paths with Stephan Kumalo and wants to learn Swahili. James Jarvis has an epiphany and provides needed help to the community during the bad drought and to Kumalo’s church. The title “Cry, the Beloved Country” is used four times in the story. The most memorable is: “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.”

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