Monday, February 6, 2017
The complex conclusions of Cry, the Beloved Country
Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, ends with a touching but over-the-top reconciliation, as Jarvis, the white landholder, donates a most of his money to the small, nearby village where Kolamu (?) is the priest; these two men are first bound by tragedy - K's son murdered J's son - and now J, instead of holding bitterness and revenge in his heart, takes pity on the impoverished village, providing milk for the children, agricultural expertise, a dam to hold off against future drought, a new roof for the church, etc. This ending would be unbearable, except that Paton keeps playing around the edges of this sentimental conclusion. This donation by Jarvis may be a great model for this one village, but Paton makes it clear that it's by no means a solution for the entire nation of South Africa - maybe not even for this village, over time, as there will never be enough arable land to support any growth in the community. In the very final scene, K ascends a mountain to spend a night in prayer and meditation, and one thing he reflects on is: What happens if love turns to hate? Obviously, the Jarvis donations are generous and heartfelt and are saving his small village, but there's also an assumption of paternalism and patronizing. The question that Jarvis cannot even comprehend is: Why should the black majority depend on the benevolence of the white landholders? What happens when the blacks of South Africa seek more than patronizing handouts, seek to run the government and own the land? Those questions are beyond the score of this novel, from 1948, and Paton himself seems only dimly aware of the immanence of black revolution, but to his credit he also recognizes that the sentimental, romantic conclusion to his narrative could not endure, could not be replicated at scale. His novel contains the recognition of its own undoing.