Cry, The Beloved Country is a book that has been on my to-read list since I first started doing intense research about South Africa a few years ago. I finally listened to the unabridged version on CD and finished it yesterday.
Part of my hesitation, I guess, is that I tried to watch the movie and fell asleep. More than once. I think that’s my fault, NOT the fault of the film, but still…I never made it. That makes me sad because I adore both James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. I guess now that I’ve read the book, I am behooved (my mother’s word, don’t you love it?) to try again to watch the film and have no doubt I’ll like it much better.
The book was spectacular. I understand why it is such an enduring classic out of South Africa. I understand why it has stayed in print since 1948.
I am awed at the Alan Paton’s genious because it was published the year apartheid was officially instituted–therefore written before the Nationalist Party took power in South Africa, and yet Paton had the insight to craft this book then. Cry, The Beloved Country is heart-breakingly beautiful. It’s full of abject, hopeless desolation, and it’s laced with hope. Alongside the inhumanity of man is the innate goodness of so many people, both black and white. Paton conveys the frustrated oppression of Black South Africans, and the arrogant nonchalance of whites. There is this crushing conflict between races, yet even in 1948, there is the hope of kindness and understanding between people of different races. Paton was a man far ahead of his time.
I thought Paton was white when I began the book, but as time went on, I started wondering if I was wrong. His seeming ability to be inside the black man’s position moved me so deeply, I wondered if I had been misinformed. No, but Paton was an anti-apartheid activist, and obviously by his writing, is his understanding of all humans as humans.
This brings me to the appropriation idea. In the U.S. if a white man wrote a book from a black man’s perspective or from a Native American’s perspective, he would be subject to scrutinizing criticism and accusations of appropriations. I wonder if Alan Paton faced that at all. I haven’t seen evidence of that, but I will pursue it. In the U.S., W.E.B. DuBois said Blacks have a “Double Consciousness” to know how the mainstream thinks along with the insight of a minority or marginalized group. My feeling is that somehow, Alan Paton had the wisdom or the empathy to do that, too.
The book isn’t fast-paced, but it is intense and deep. The ruminations and emotional responses to the world and its harshness by the Umfundisi (“Parson”) Kumalu make for beautiful storytelling and lyrical heartbreak and hope. I always read these South African books with an ear to the ground for books I can use in class. This one won’t be a selection in class because I think the pace would frustrate quite a few students, but I am going to count it among my favorites. And yes, I’ll give the film another chance.
Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. 1948. New York: Scribner, 2003.