“Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel that gets read in schools a lot, probably because it has a vaguely To Kill a Mockingbird-like feel, but international, with the action moved to South Africa. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest who lives in a rural village, goes to Johannesburg to look for his sister, who is ill (and is also a fallen woman), and, while he’s there, he searches too for his son Absalom, who has gone astray as well. His search ends when he learns his son has been arrested for the murder of a particularly Atticus Finch-like white man, an ardent activist against South Africa’s hardening pre-apartheid racist systems. Not only that, but the victim was the only, and much-beloved, son of the wealthy planter whose property adjoins Kumalo’s impoverished village. What is a good and pious preacher to do in such circumstances? And what is that other, wealthier, white to do, when his own son’s murder reveals to him his own personal failings, in terms of how content he has been to overlook injustice?
It’s another one that I am teaching (and thus, this is a reread), and I know it’s not a particularly fashionable book to teach in the current moment, for a number of reasons: Paton was a white man, for one, writing about black experiences of racism; his black characters can, understandably, be felt to lack a bit of dimension; there’s barely any women with real roles to speak of; it’s also a frankly religious book, drawing heavily on motifs and language from the Bible (particularly the King James Version); and its hopeful ending is almost painful in hindsight, knowing as we do that these individual moments of uplift are not sufficient to keep an unjust system from barreling along towards ever greater injustices.
“Aye, but the hand that had murdered had once pressed the mother’s breast into the thirsting mouth, had stolen into the father’s hand when they went out into the dark. Aye, but the murderer afraid of death had once been a child afraid of the night.”
It is, nonetheless, a poignant and often frankly beautiful book, with plenty to commend it in terms of narrative structure. My students were struck by the way Paton captures the exhausting grind of Kumalo’s search for his son, hampered as he is not only by his unfamiliarity with Johannesburg, but also by an ongoing bus boycott, modeled after the Alexandra boycott of 1943. Some of Paton’s delicacy around naming names, and also in making sure to include the occasional nice white person (for instance, a man who gives rides to the boycotting commuters, and challenges a policeman threatening to ticket him to just try and take him to court) is not just about being nice to his white audience; Paton was aware that the South African government might ban any book that was too explicitly critical (as happened later with Nadine Gordimer), and so he was careful to work inside the unspoken rules he perceived. Similarly, his use of biblical motifs and language makes sense when considering his audience, namely, white Europeans and Americans who are likely unaware of what was happening in South Africa, and who, in 1948, would perceive a black protagonist with a name like “Kumalo” as exotic. By making Kumalo an Anglican priest, and steeping the book in the rhythms of the KJV, Paton collapses some of the distance between his audience and his main character: he becomes familiar, rather than strange.
And what feels most true in this novel is the way Paton captures how we struggle with tragedy, particularly when it catches us off guard and shakes the foundations under our feet. Both Jarvis, the wealthy landowner, and Kumalo have to face the loss of a beloved son, and Paton is precise but compassionate about the contours of their respective griefs, and about the great, unanswerable questions that grief raises for us. (He does not attempt to provide tidy answers.) Elsewhere, we see good characters briefly lapse into the sort of unkindness that sorrow or shame can push us to, and the regret with which they retreat from that bitter impulse and try to make amends. (And Paton is unsparing, in some of the intercalary chapters that give us a peek into privileged Johannesburg life, about how selfish and myopic the white South Africans truly are about their own privilege, and how nice people can also be deeply racist.)
Cry, the Beloved Country will probably have a more uphill climb with audiences that are not religious (or at least, not in love with that KJV register–look, I went to seminary, this is kind of my jam), and it is hard, in moments, to tamp down one’s cynicism in response to the hopeful ending (look, I’m alive in 2021, I’m a hardened realist). But it’s clear how much Paton loved his country and hated apartheid, and how much he desired for the system to be broken by peaceful means rather than the violent armed conflict that many feared would come in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a tenderhearted record of a moment that has since passed, and a fascinating read against the backdrop of all we live through today.
“But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
(Also, the 1990s movie adaptation stars James Earl Jones and while yes, a native South African actor would have been the best choice, Kumalo does deserve to have his lines spoken in such a very excellent voice.)