Singing of South Africa

South African landscape

South Africa

Most people in America (and by “most” of course I mean “me”) know almost nothing about the history of South Africa. I know it was invaded by the Dutch long ago. I know the British came along and took it from the Dutch, because…you know, they were British. And I can figure out that compared to the native people already living in Africa, both the Dutch and British came thundering in with advanced mechanical technology and an attitude of cultural superiority. So local people were there to be killed, enslaved, or degraded (think of America, Peru, Australia).

Some of that history comes to life in a novel I had heard of, sort of, but knew nothing about. The book is Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, a white writer who recognized the damage and injustice from the white society that dominated his country. The book follows several characters, both black and white, for several months, but the real purpose is to comment on social and political conditions in South Africa.

Possibly Cry, the Beloved Country was only published because Paton was out of South Africa when he wrote it. The novel was written in 1946, in only three months, while the author was traveling in other countries inspecting their prison systems. He finished the book while in the United States, and friends here helped him to publish. Only two years later, in 1948, the Afrikaners (descendents of the Dutch) came to political power and officially instituted the apartheid system that lasted until 1994.

The two major characters of the book are two elderly men, Stephen Kumalo, a poor black minister, and to a lesser extent a white farmer named Jarvis. They live near one another, but they never have any interaction until an extreme incident causes them to cross paths, which leads them to discover a humanity in one another, with some surprising twists by the end. It is not a happy book, but it does contain a sense of hope.

Paton has also made the country of South Africa a character, symbolized, perhaps, by the title itself. The book is, after all, about South Africa, and the characters, however much they may hold our interest, are meant to represent ways of thinking and living in the country in 1946. The place itself is given some prominence in several ways. In some sections of the book, we read about social issues affecting the country, which the author brings in either through the interactions and conversations of the characters, or through narrative discussions from the author. At other times—repeatedly—South Africa is shown to be important through the poetry of the writing. Listen to the first two sentences of the book: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

I found the writing style of the book to be especially interesting, something I would pay attention to. Although the entire book is written in English (with a good sprinkling of Zulu and a few Africaner words), the style of the narrative changes according to which characters are being emphasized. When the action is focused on the Zulu Kumalo, for instance, although written in English, the speakers do not use contractions and they seem to use more repetition, as well as some ritual phrasing. The overall feeling is rather formal and stiff, and at first I didn’t like it. In other sections of the book, focused on white English speakers such as Jarvis, the style changes, and it felt more natural to my expectations. It wasn’t until I got to later sections of the book, with the contrast, that I could get a sense of how Paton was deliberately using these styles.

I can’t say that I felt especially connected with any of the characters, and that is a possible problem to any book whose real goal is something as large as presenting ideas about a country. I suppose that what Paton was after in writing this book was to talk to the citizens of his country, to say to them “If we want to be a decent country, we have to become more civilized and recognize one another’s humanity.”

I also got a feeling for that place at that time, with some sense of where South Africa has come from. I don’t know if Paton’s message to his fellow citizens was successful at the time he wrote it (official apartheid followed soon after), but the book continues to be read because the message about humanity is still relevant to most of us, and in presenting that message to all of us, I think the author was successful.

Everywhere on the earth, it seems to me, we are still trying to figure out how to be civilized. That is yet to come. It is books like Cry, the Beloved Country that nudge us in the right direction.

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