Alan Paton is an inspiration to me. I suppose anybody can get published, if their storyline is unique enough and their opinions push the envelope and get people talking, or maybe if their grammar and vocabulary is academic enough. Yet I believe that Alan Paton writes from a genuine place of truth, as his voice shines through his work and cements his ideals during the dark days of Apartheid rule in South Africa.
“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 valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is South Africa’s most recognized novel and has become popular world-wide. In 1995 it was adapted into a feature film that was critically acclaimed and praised to be a good portrayal of typical South Africa under apartheid.
It is the story of a poor Reverend, Stephen Khumalo whose son Absalom has disappeared in search of greener pastures in the city of gold, Johannesburg. He is not the only one though – many young men and women, many husbands and even some wives have abandoned the burden of the backward countryside in order to find a more exciting and better life because “all roads lead to Johannesburg.” Khumalo receives a letter that his sister Gertrude, who also left to Johannesburg, is ill and that he must come quickly. He and his wife decide to take the savings they had stored up for Absalom’s education, as it was obvious that he would never return. When he arrives, he sees his sister near death and enquires about his son, intending to take them both back to the village, Ixopo. She insists that his nephew would know. As the story unravels, we see the Reverend facing the possible fact that his family may never be intact again and that his son, Absalom, has been accused of murdering a white man even though it is questionable that he should be blamed for this as his nephew appears to be the guilty one. But Khumalo’s brother is rich and somehow, Absalom faces the charges solely.
Khumalo then accepts that his son must hang and later goes back alone, as Gertrude flees just before they are to leave for the hilly countryside for good. Khumalo later realizes that the man murdered is none other than the son of James Jarvis, his white supremacist neighbor in Ixopo.
Jarvis later learns that his dead son was a political activist opposed to the new regime and deeply supportive of the principle of equality and fairness. He learns this through the writings his son has left behind, as they were distant whilst he was alive.
This novel shows how hurt and anger, pain and injustice are no respecter of persons and can afflict anybody, regardless of race or class. It teaches that no matter how many seeds are bad, there are those people who will live out the truth of rightness and those people should be honored. It teaches courage and forgiveness, but most of all love. At the end we see lives transformed, Khumalo trusting God more with the mysteries of life and James Jarvis developing a character like his son’s, one that is propelled by dignity and personal courage that seeks to do what is right in the face of what may appear to be justified wrongs.
Four months after Cry, The Beloved Country came out in 2003 (published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York City), South Africa’s national party swept to power, and shortly after, formally legislated the first of many laws that established apartheid in the country. Paton worked extensively to oppose this government and used different mediums, including writing and initiating a political party that would later be forced to disband.
Paton’s other notable works are “Too Late the Phalarope” and “Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful”. One of his poems is my favorite and show just how human he was. “To A Small Boy That Died at Diepkloof Reformatory” is a mandatory read for anybody that wants to peer into the heart of this hero.