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Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

by Alan Paton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7,759160777 (3.99)495
Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo travels to Johannesburg on an errand for a friend and to visit his son, Absalom, only to learn Absalom has been accused of murdering white city engineer and social activist Arthur Jarvis and stands very little chance of receiving mercy.
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» See also 495 mentions

English (158)  French (1)  German (1)  All languages (160)
Showing 1-5 of 158 (next | show all)
Amazing read. Interesting insight into the South Africa right at the cusp of entering into the age of Apartheid. Capturing the complicated state of people and cultures clashing in an era of rapid change. Beautifully written. ( )
  victor.k.jacobsson | May 23, 2020 |
A beautiful, deeply sad book that tells the story of South Africa before Apartheid had a name, but when most of that system was functionally in place, through a few peoples' connected stories.

The writing is a powerful example of how to love a place while despising crucial things about it.

The book does have some weaknesses which I think reflect the author's position of privilege relative to half of the characters. White saviourism creeps in a little in book 3; there aren't really any fully realised female characters; and I think he lets off Anglo South Africa too easily by caricaturing Afrikaners as the sole drivers of Apartheid. It's a mark of Paton's skill as a writer that all of these elements are much less of a drag than in other books like this I've read (notably Snow Falling on Cedars, which is all-but-ruined by the equivalent flaws). It may be the best account a white South African could have written of that moment in time, and now I really want to read a black South African's counterpart. ( )
  eldang | May 14, 2020 |
This is the big daddy of all liberal South African protest novels, the first really high-profile international bestseller to draw attention to the damage done by the racism embedded in the South African system, even before the fiction of "apartheid" was created.

It's a simple, very classically-constructed novel, a tragedy built around a father's quest for his missing son, full of symbolic landscape description and stately, formal conversations, peppered with interpolated sociological observations that come at us from a Marxist-Anglican viewpoint, all of it very much more 1848 than 1948. But somehow that doesn't seem to matter: Paton gets away with it because of his obvious love for the country and the people who live in it and his passionate concern to undo the mess that it is in.

Paton sees the racism that poisons South African life in a straightforward Marxist way, as an ideology that has grown up to justify the need the capitalist system has to keep black people in poverty so that there will always be a pool of unskilled labour prepared to work at low wages to keep the mines and farms going. By taking away the best land and forcing people into inadequate "reserves", the old agricultural economy of the tribal system has been broken down, taking with it the social control and restraints on behaviour of traditional society. Young men have to leave their families to go and work in the cities — the system doesn't allow them to establish stable family homes in the cities, or to build careers or businesses once they are there, so those who are too enterprising or too undisciplined to cope with tedious work in mines and factories are more than likely to end up in crime.

For the moment, political opposition doesn't seem to offer a way out — in the absence of any real political responsibilities open to them, black leaders are vulnerable to being corrupted by the system. Well-meaning white liberals can make a difference on a small local scale, but in the end they are only giving back a part of what their community took away in the first place. The only real pillar of hope for Paton seems to be the (Anglican-) Christian church, which gives black people a new kind of community structure to replace what they have lost in the breakdown of tribal bonds. But he's clearly not expecting the revolution any time soon.

If this were a new book, it would be criticised because Paton is a white person writing from the point of view of a black protagonist, using elements of style that are clearly meant to give the book an African rhythm, but which can sometimes start looking rather Hiawatha-ish: Here is a white man's wonder, a train that has no engine, only an iron cage on its head, taking power from metal ropes stretched out above. Conversations that are supposed to be in Zulu are rendered in very formal, courteous English, which is perhaps an accurate representation of the way social relations in Zulu work, but starts after a while to look like a cliché of old-fashioned exoticising colonial fiction. It's clearly all well-meant, of course, and in the context of its time, we can't really use the "cultural appropriation" argument that Paton is stealing space in which black writers could have been selling their books. If anything, he's helping to create a demand for more African writing.

Of course, Paton wrote this for an international audience, during a stay abroad, and the book must owe a lot of its success to the self-satisfaction American readers got from discovering that there were worse things in the world than their own home-grown racism, and British readers from finding that it wasn't their responsibility any more. The South African authorities, of course, banned it. But Paton did go back home and continued to engage in South African politics, doing his best to swim against the tide and work for change.

Whatever you think of it, it's an engaging tear-jerker and an important document of its time. ( )
1 vote thorold | Apr 9, 2020 |
The story of a country parson's journey to Johannesburg to find his son is told in the slow, stately rhythms of country life, and perhaps the Zulu language itself. I was moved by the ritual use of language: go well, stay well, yes, I understand, many other repeated phrases that become something of a hymn to the country and the lost culture. The characters are sometimes emblems: the girl, the demonstrator, the boy, the child, all without names. But the characters that are named are very present. The parson's brother John has long since relocated to Johannesburg, and adopted city ways and pace. Gertrude has been totally corrupted by the city after traveling there to find her husband. Jarvis and Parson Kumalo share the countryside and the terrible pain of loss. Msimangu is a loving guide through the inferno of the city, and a truly religious man.

Paton doesn't shy away from the politics and desolation of apartheid, but he shows its effect on behavior, on the way things must be done and must not be done. He makes it very personal, and all his characters sympathetic, no easy task.
And the book is filled with grinding poverty, unspoken fears, poignant hope.

We know now that apartheid has ended, reconcilliation has been attempted, people still live in poverty and separation. Amazingly, there was no war. But the fears between and among groups of different people resurge, and this book bears reading again.
  ffortsa | Apr 8, 2020 |
"But there is only one thing that has power completely, and this is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power."

Stephen Kumalo is a Zulu and a Anglican priest living in a small farming community set aside for the natives. One day he and his wife receive a letter from Johannesburg, urging him to come visit the city because his sister Gertrude needs help. Many people from his tribe have gone to the city and never returned, including his own son, so Stephen sets off to try and find them.

The city is a bewildering place for simple tribal priest and Stephen is soon taken advantage of but he is befriended by the Reverend Msimangu, the man who sent the letter to him, who helps Stephen find his way around and locate missing family members. He first finds his sister Gertrude who has fallen to alcohol and prostitution. She has a child who is unkempt and neglected. He takes them both to his boarding house, intent on bringing them both back home to the village. He also finds his brother who has been rallying the natives to fight back against exploitation of the miners and unfair wages. His words are dangerous and he is seen as a threat by the whites.

But Stephen is most anxious to find his son and with help from Msimangu follow the trail from one lead to another. Along the way Stephen learns that his son got a young girl pregnant and spent time incarcerated in a rehabilitation program, only to be released and disappear again.

When a white man is murdered by a native Stephen fears the worst, that his son may be the perpetrator, because not only is Arthur Jarvis a white man, but is also an outspoken political activist against apartheid and the son of James Jarvis, his neighbour and landowner near his home village. Days later, his son Absalom, when he is approached by the police confesses to being the murderer.

The murder forces both fathers are forced to reflect on their own lives. Stephen initially loses his faith, but regains it through the kindness of others whilst James, despite having lost his son to black crime, begins to study what his son had written about it and begins to see things in a different light, even developing a relationship, albeit a distant one, with his son’s killer's father and his black neighbours.

“Sorrow is better than fear,"............ "Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving.”

I am a big fan of reading books about history, in particular social history and even more so if it is about post-colonialism. So a book on South Africa and/or apartheid is right up my street even if it can be at times uncomfortable reading for a white male. Although this book was written before the end of apartheid and as such is thankfully a little dated now, I still found it an incredibly emotional read offering as it does, a small glimpse into a terrible injustice that I can only imagine.

Alan Paton is a white South African and when the book was published it was an enormous success around the world but banned in the author's home country afraid that it might challenge the status quo! This is a book packed full of Christian themes such as faith, forgiveness and atonement but also looks at how western civilization's encroachment on the native Zulu tribes and families has been severely detrimental to them. With only roughly 10% of the land being given over to the native population there is not enough land to feed their own families and in particular with not enough land to safely rear and feed their cattle, a status symbol to the tribesmen, the land that they have got has become over-grazed and is dying meaning that many of the young men and women are forced to leave their ancestral lands in search of work and money in the cities and mines leaving only the old, the very young and the infirm behind them. Once away from their tribal elders these young men and women find it hard to resist temptation and follow a righteous path. They are taken advantage of, paid slave wages and so the crime rate soars. Although Johannesburg was rife with racism and apartheid, it was heart-warming to see acts kindness between people, both black and white. In a book filled with so much pain examples of occasional kindness was welcome.

"I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they have turned to loving, they will find that they are turned to hating."

I found this a very powerful at at times moving read but there were also a few elements about the writing that made me a little uncomfortable even a little offensive in out hopefully more enlightened times. Especially because the author is white. Too often the natives are depicted as very simple people, with simple minds, and even described as “children” completely incompatible with western civilization, big cities, and temptation. But perhaps worst of all there seems to be a suggestion, probably unintended, that God was in fact white. These are only minor quibbles and any future reader must recognise the society into which this book was published but in today's world they are enough to stop me from rewarding this otherwise gripping book top marks. Sorry ( )
  PilgrimJess | Feb 17, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 158 (next | show all)

» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alan Patonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aasen, FinnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Callan, EdwardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gannett, LewisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hillelson, JohnPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leonardo, ToddCover photosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Majorick, B.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moppès, Denise VanTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scibner, Charles, Jr.Forewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, Mary AnnCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Van Moppès, DeniseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Dedication
To Aubrey & Marigold Burns of Fairfax, California
To
my wife
and to my friend of many years
JAN HENDRIK HOFMEYR
First words
It is true that there is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.
Quotations
It is not permissible to add to one’s possessions if these things can only be done at the cost of other men. Such development has only one true name, and that is exploitation.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.
All roads lead to Johannesburg.
When people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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