Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cry, the Beloved Country

by Alan Paton
Collier Books, 1987, originally published 1948
283 pages, paperback

Last month, I started reviewing some "really good reads" that are studied in our school. I mentioned that one way to tell that Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird is such a really good read that it made a really good movie. In the case of Cry, the Beloved Country, the most recent movie is not as beautifully faithful to the themes of the novel; however, as with Lee's novel, when the movie version of Paton's novel is successful, it is when it trusts its source, using meditative and descriptive passages from the novel (read by James Earl Jones) to deepen our understanding of crucial scenes.

So why does the movie quote the book as often as it does? The reason is that Cry, the Beloved Country is possibly the most poetic novel in the English language. Here is the passage that opens the book, part of which also is read in the recent movie:

THERE is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and 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 one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld....
The passage reminds me of the best of Tolkien's descriptive passages, with the difference that Paton is describing the real and breathtaking beauty of  his native South Africa. After continuing to describe how rich the land is where we are standing, on the hilltops, Paton immediately shows us the poverty of the black reservations in the valley:

...the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature.... Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for; it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titithoya does not cry here any more.

That is only an excerpt, and only the beginning of the poetic brilliance of the novel. Apart from Paton's masterful use of language, what makes the novel so worth studying in a Christian school is its revelation of two of humanity's endless struggles: against social injustice, and against our own rebellious hearts

Set in South Africa in 1946, when apartheid separated blacks and whites by law, the novel tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, the black pastor of his people in the village of Ndotsheni. Kumalo's people suffer from the poverty mentioned above, so many have left the village to work in Johannesburg and then seemingly disappear, including Kumalo's own sister looking for her husband working in the mines, and in turn Kumalo's son. When Kumalo reads that his sister is very ill, he goes to Johannesburg to help her, and to look for his missing son. During his journey to Johannesburg, his time there, and the aftermath of his experiences, both he and we are made aware of the social injustices - some deliberate, some less so - that keep blacks poor and create hostility between the races.

However, Cry, the Beloved Country is not a political novel (although, unfortunately, that is how the latest movie version treats it). The deeper struggle for Stephen Kumalo is how to react to injustice and poverty. His brother has become a leader (very much behind the scenes) for the black resistance to apartheid, but his brother's motives are mostly economic. Others also oppose the system - mostly blacks but some (too few) whites, some more and less principled - but all must decide whether opposition to an unjust social system must necessarily involve hatred against those who uphold that system. Kumalo himself struggles with the temptation - so common to all of us, even when God is working in us - to take pride in his work, to doubt God's goodness in him, to turn to harsh and angry words toward others. In many ways, Kumalo's life parallels King David's: Kumalo is a man after God's own heart who yet stumbles, even severely; who goes through the valley of the shadow of death; who grieves for his son Absalom; and who finally leads those whom God has put in his care toward a better life, both economically and spiritually.

The novel ends, as many great novels do, somberly yet hopefully. It would be more than forty years after the book was published before apartheid ended.

I  mentioned earlier how poetic the novel is. Paton echoes the concreteness of the Zulu language in his description, puts rhetoric in the mouths of his political and religious orators that will remind you of the classic speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and writes narration that uses refrain and repetition to underscore the heartbreaking crises facing the characters. This novel begs to be read aloud.

When we study it in class, we do read about two thirds of the novel out loud - with a different student handling each character's dialogue in a chapter, and me as teacher handling the narration. Two pitfalls to watch out for: Some of the non-Christian characters do use profane language (perhaps three times in the novel in total), and the novel doesn't have any quotation marks. New speakers are shown at the beginning of a paragraph by a dash, and speeches beginning in the middle of a paragraph are set off simply by commas. This is confusing at first (another reason we read so much out loud at first), but it also gives the novel a form a little more like a play, and enhances the poetic and dramatic power that still often puts a lump in my throat when reading it out loud with my class for the seventeenth time. Cry, the Beloved Country is the novel that I most enjoy and look forward to teaching every year, and one that you (and many of my students) will never forget.

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