Somewhere in high school both Kris and I read Alan Paton’s famous Cry, the Beloved Country, but it was so long ago that I had to read it again in preparation for our time in South Africa. Yes, it was a novel; yes, it was fantastic.
Who’s read this novel? What did you think? What did it lead you to do, to think, to feel, and to read next?
I hope you can read this novel too. South Africa, so I was told the other day by a professor friend in South Africa, is not now what it was when Cry, the Beloved Country was written. In some ways, the book both anticipates and deconstructs apartheid.
For three weeks now the images, sounds, smells, and words of this novel have wandered around in my head and heart — popping out like spring flowers for attention at the oddest of times. Alan Paton’s capacity to use words to paint images and create a space for his story is something that has continued to deepen my love for this novel. I feel like I know Stephen Kumalo and like I’ll be looking for him next week at some coffee shop outside Johannesburg.
No reason to spoil the plot for you, so let me mention a few themes that stood out for me:
1. The story tells a story of a depressing reality in one line: “All roads lead to Johannesburg.” That’s not the same as Rome; that’s the story that the Africans who go there lose their way and their history and their place and their land and their identity. Stephen Kumalo’s search for his sister and his son in Johannesburg — and he finds them both — leads to both discovery and disaster.
2. The story is a yearning: “Cry, the beloved country” is a theme of a yearning for a return to better ways and a discovery of better days.
3. The story is a story of hope: When Stephen Kumalo returns to his village a note of hope and possibility and a future for the land and for the people begin to emerge. The rains will come … it goes on.
4. The story is a story of a land, of earth, of grass, of hills, of sun … it brings in the land so often critics have said the land is actually a character in this novel. I suppose so.
5. The story warns of a racist reality that has not been undone; it pushes and probes into the heart of humans and asks, “Why?”
What a fantastic story. Glad I read it again.