Thursday, February 2, 2017
One of the most influential novels from the mid-20th century: Cry, the Beloved Country
I've never read it, but Alan Paton's 1948 (debut) novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, was a hugely influential book in its time and a mega-best seller. On recommendation from friend FP, I am checking this novel out (literally, from the BPL) - and from the first third or so it's easy to see why this novel was so significant and so well-received. My guess is that white American and European readers, in that era, new very little about poverty in third-world countries and even less about exploitation of black African people in their native lands - particularly by the vast European mining conglomerates. I believe that apartheid itself was not in effect in South Africa in 1948, but the seeds were there - and this novel provides us with a harrowing and detailed account of the poverty and exploitation, as well as of the efforts of a very few to make their world better. Interestingly, Paton isn't doctrinaire in his narrative: one character is a black political leader whose more about bombast and personal aggrandizement; the black family at the center of the novel are by no means angelic; and there's some indication that the black tribal leaders are a hindrance to reform and all too willing to form alliances with the ruling white community. In other words, the novel is full of first-hand observation about a wide sector of the population of S. Africa. Through the first third, it's pretty sorrowful and depressing - hard to see how there's any way out of the poverty and exploitation short of complete, violent revolution - and that seems nearly impossible, with the black community fully oppressed by the white. We'll see how the narrative develops. As a novel, Cry etc. is a bit clunky: at its heart it's a story of a priest from rural SA called into J-burg to try to help his fallen sister, and he also embarks on a search for his son who'd gone to the big city and lost family contact. Through his journey from station to station in search of his family members we see many aspects of SA life - informative, but a little schematic as a narrative device. The writing is clean and straightforward, however, with a few strained passages of lyricism. But Paton accomplished his goal of bringing world attention to the plight of native Africans in his land - he was a brave writer, and he fought apartheid over the course of his life.