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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Alan Paton's politics: liberal? progressive? reactionary? radical?

Trying to come to terms w/ Alan Paton's politics in his 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. On one level he appears to espouse the classic liberal positions regarding imperialism, colonialism, and racism (in this novel about his native South Africa): he bravely shows his readers the incredible poverty and the exploitation of the native black population, but he does so shrewdly and with an even hand, never stepping away from the corrupt black political forces that co-opt and the rights of black people, unafraid to show black crime (the central event of the novel involves a young black African killing a white man during a home invasion) - and his characters raise all the classic liberal solutions: a better educational, prison reform, access to land for farming, etc. He also writes sympathetically about resistance in the black communities, in particular about an organized boycott of the bus system. All to the good and no doubt very brave and forward-thinking in its time - but what contemporary readers will note is the one thing Paton does not raise (at least in the first half of the novel): black sovereignty, majority rule, social revolution (these are one and the same). He write this novel before the establishment of Apartheid - a social "solution" so reprehensible he doesn't even consider it. But could he have foreseen figures such as Mendela? It seems he can't even imagine a South Africa ruled by the black majority. That said, perhaps he leaves a window open to a more radical solution: in his several chapters in which the various (white) characters consider the various liberal solutions to alleviate the poverty of the black majority, their conversations tend to end in despair: education, a plot of land, etc - just isn't enough, can't be enough - as we see from the young man accused of murder, who had been assigned to the most progressive of "reformatories," to no avail. By undercutting all of the liberal solutions, perhaps Paton is steering his readers to the more radical, almost unthinkable at the time, solution - black nationalism - without his even mentioning the term.

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