Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton

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. 

Cry, The Beloved Country was recommended to me by Mr. Gacek, and I enjoyed it. Set in South Africa, it is the story of Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom, and also the deep racism and injustice that prevails in the land. As the name implies, the country and the land itself is really central to the story. It's a work of love, hope, courage, and endurance.

Some aspects of the book were less compelling than others. I didn't initially love the characters; I mean, I enjoyed reading about them, but I never deeply connected to them. At first. As I got deeper into the novel, however, they did come more to life for me. What I did love from the very beginning, the very first sentence, was the descriptions of the landscape, the country, and just the general sentiments prevailing in South Africa at the time.

I also got drawn up in the beginning in the story of Kumalo going to Johannesburg to try and find his son. I really wanted to see what would happen. Kumalo and a new-found friend are led all over the area, to boarding-house after boarding-house, trying to locate Absalom. There's this sense of helplessness in some ways throughout the novel, and it was really powerful. Kumalo has not heard news of his son for years, and now he's trying to find where he's gone. The book, published in 1948, is probably set before World War II (I'm guessing), so although there is some, there isn't that much technology. Everything is so distanced from everything else, knowledge (particularly  for the black man) so hard to come by. We have it so easy now in the digital age, with every bit of information at our fingertips. I was reminded of that while reading Cry, The Beloved Country.

I also really liked the chapters where Paton would shift away from Kumalo's story and just do a kind of general sketch of Johannesburg using dialogue. John Steinbeck uses this technique too in The Grapes of Wrath when he's trying to describe the Dust Bowl and the general feeling. It's quite effective, and really worked in this case as well. Especially the first chapter like this starting on page 82, dealing with the fact that everyone who has problems ends up in Johannesburg, trying to find a room to board in. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it's kind of just focusing on an individual story (in this case, Kumalo's) but then sometimes broadening your perception to include the whole. Rather than, like The Buddha in the Attic, trying to write a whole novel talking about the whole (inadvertent pun alert), or trying to just focus on one story without ever deviating. It seems to me that neither of those techniques works when writing in a historical setting, or even one in the present-day. You have to consider everything.

Cry, The Beloved Country was certainly an interesting and thought-provoking read, and I ended up really liking it.

Read Cry, The Beloved Country:
  • if you like African fiction
  • if you like Alan Paton
312 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

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