52 Weeks of Literature, Week One: “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton

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Representative Excerpt: “There is little attention being paid to the trial of those accused of the murder of Arthur Jarvis of Parkwold. For gold has been discovered, more gold, rich gold. There is a little place called Odendaalsrust in the province of the Orange Free State. Yesterday, it was quite unknown, today it is one of the famous places of the world.” (p. 200)

In 2006, midway through the seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Wiener, highly recommended Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton to me. That was a decade ago. That’s ten damn years it’s taken me to act on her recommendation, and it’s procrastination like that that motivates me to embark on this fifty-books-a-year project. Some books you just need to get out of the way. Across these ten years, I’ve remembered Mrs. Wiener telling the class about this one particularly powerful scene from the novel, in which a man beats a woman (maybe his daughter?) over a misdeed, and the woman cries because it is of course painful and unjust, but the man cries too because he feels that his patriarchal culture is forcing him to commit this heinous act. That would be quite a scene—if it were in this novel. Yeah, that’s the thing: I can now confirm to you all that there is no such scene in Paton’s novel. For ten years, my imagination of this novel has been centered around a scene that never occurs in its story. For almost half my life so far, I’ve anticipated reading in this book an emotionally climactic scene that in all likelihood does not exist anywhere in the literary canon. What gives? I don’t think my memory is faulty. Chances are Mrs. Wiener got two or more books mixed up. Reader, if you remember said scene from another (maybe South African?) book, I implore you to let me know.

All things considered, this was a very mediocre start to my yearlong endeavor. The prose is a drag. Reading prose has become for me a visceral experience. Great prose makes time viscous, makes me pause to assure that every word is reinvigorating my mental image of the narrative. Great prose is exhausting and ecstatic; it induces Stendhal syndrome; it ripples from brain to body, making both numb and stubborn. (Two recent examples of such prose, both of which I considered for this project before choosing to read them earlier, are The Lover by Marguerite Duras and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.) Bad prose is painful. Bad prose hums in the ears at a high, out-of-tune pitch; it sticks needles in the temples; it insults my intelligence and makes me wonder if literature has a future. Paton’s prose is very occasionally luminous but more often leers towards bad prose. There are vacant repetitions, pointless long lists of place names, meandering passages of dialogue wasted restating the obvious, with little depth and little insight into the characters’ perspectives nor into the world of late-1940s South Africa that Paton is so set on condemning. Early on, I was tempted to daresay that this white author was writing a bland, toneless, near-offensive riff on the oral traditions on which much of native African literature is built—a hyperbolic take on the campfire parable. The Internet tells me this assumption is wrong: Paton based his prose on the King James Bible. Fine. But it bears saying that the Bible as far as I know is poorly written, hampered by cruddy translations, morally dishonest in its confusion of history and fantasy, and prejudiced to a bizarre extreme. How many agnostic persons among us have truly read it for the pleasure of its narrative? Very few, I imagine.

The sociopolitical aspirations of the narrative—which is about a Zulu priest, Stephen Kumalo, who heads to Johannesburg to seek out long-lost relatives only to learn that his son Absalom is under arrest for killing Arthur Jarvis, a white man—are noble. The policy of apartheid that ensnared South Africa around the time this novel was published is objectively evil and demands an indignant literary response. But for the critic, execution is everything, and the story does not support the prose when it could use support. Kumalo and his fellow priest Msimangu’s following Absalom’s steps around Johannesburg is a lifeless relay race. James Jarvis, the father of the murder victim, reads Arthur’s oratories on the race and class issues facing the nation and is inspired to initiate the construction of a dam (!) in Kumalo’s tiny village and to educate the villagers on new agricultural techniques. He is the hackneyed white man who resolves to reform his neglectful ways, yet purports to help the native blacks while really still condescending over them. There are some intriguing diversions to the stories of persons on the main story’s periphery, and Absalom’s trial offers some provocative interpretations of the judge’s role in society. But these threads go nowhere; Absalom’s inevitable fate is nearly—not quite but very nearly—forgotten in the novel’s denouement and feels tacked on. The cumulative feel is of a punchy short story/novella drawn out to novel length. Alas—one down, forty-nine to go.

Grade: C

Next week: We head to 1500s Turkey for Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week One: “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton

Announcement: “52 Weeks of Literature”

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Following my recent success of watching and reviewing one film per day for a full month, I have decided to embark on an even more ambitious project. Next year, I am going to read—and perhaps review—fifty (50) novels, which have been predetermined. I will devote roughly one week to each novel, with the exception of the last novel on my list—an epic, classic work of literature for which I will set aside the last three weeks of 2016 because safe to assume, I will need them. You can call this a New Year’s Resolution of sorts. (Turns out, there are plenty of people on the Web who have already been doing this exact same project for several years now; I’ll have to shout out to them. It might get this little blog of mine some much-appreciable publicity—cough, cough.)

Film reviews and book reviews could not be much more different. Films are essentially short stories—novellas, at most; they’re easier to digest and summarize. Novels require a greater time commitment and demand a more in-depth review complete with quotes, close analysis and the like. Full disclosure: a major reason I’m doing this is because I’m spoiled rotten when it comes to literature (cinema, too, to a lesser extent), and as a result, the percentage of books I finish out of all the books I start is far lower than I care to admit. The books I have gotten to the end of, I’ve finished because they have a particular hold on me, thus any review of them that I write is bound to be unusually positive and monotonous. In committing to this project, I am resolving to gain the stamina to read the novels I detest—the novels whose canonical status I come to vehemently disagree with—to the bitter end, as I do invariably with films I can’t stand, so that I am better equipped to review them. This way, it’ll be a maturation process for me. As for the book reviews that I’ll write, they’ll be relatively terse, and they’ll take shape as they go along. I’m not sure quite yet how I will approach them from a formally critical standpoint (not least because this started as a film review blog and is now becoming…well, something decidedly more complex), so I’ll be improvising. Bear with me. It’ll be an experience for writer and reader alike.

In devising my list of books, I stuck to the following rules (similar to my rules for the “31 Days of Cinema” challenge):

  • Maximum four novels per nation—viz., nation of author’s origin. (Exception permitted if the author has an international background.)
  • North, Central and South America; the Caribbean; Western and Eastern Europe; Western, Eastern and Southern Africa; the Middle East; Eastern, Southeastern and Southern Asia; and Oceania all must be represented by at least one novel.
  • All decades since the 1810s, including the 2010s, and the pre-1810s era must each be represented.
  • If we may divide time—starting backwards from 2025—into quarter-centuries, no two novels may come from the same nation and the same quarter-century. (To reiterate: exception permitted if there is an international component.)
  • At least one novel by a female author per month, on average—viz., at least twelve women. (Very soon in this life, I swear, I’m going to go a whole month watching films by female directors only, and a whole year reading novels by female authors only. Very soon.)
  • At least once a month, on average, I am to read a novel I have started but have not finished, from the beginning; at the same time, I must be on my first full-length reading of each novel.
  • For foreign novels, the by-consensus best (usually the most recent) translation is mandatory.

Hence, the list:

Jan. 3-9: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South African, 1948, 316 pp.)
Jan. 10-16: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish, 2002, 432 pp.)
Jan. 17-23: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (American, 1943, 528 pp.)
Jan. 24-30: The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes (Mexican, 1985, 208 pp.)
Jan. 31-Feb. 6: A Fringe of Leaves by Patrick White (Australian, 1976, 368 pp.)
Feb. 7-13: Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin (Taiwanese, 1996, 176 pp.)
Feb. 14-20: Transit by Anna Seghers (German, 1944, 288 pp.)
Feb. 21-27: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (Canadian, 1970, 252 pp.)
Feb. 28-Mar. 5: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (American, 1906, 412 pp.)
Mar. 6-12: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (French, 1835, 304 pp.)
Mar. 13-19: The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness (Icelandic, 1948, 202 pp.)
Mar. 20-26: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian, 2013, 588 pp.)
Mar. 27-Apr. 2: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela (Mexican, 1915, 176 pp.)
Apr. 3-9: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink (South African, 1979, 320 pp.)
Apr. 10-16: A Hero of our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (Russian, 1840, 208 pp.)
Apr. 17-23: Unknown Soldiers by Väinö Linna (Finnish, 1954, 488 pp.)
Apr. 24-30: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Russian, 1862, 257 pp.)
May. 1-7: Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist (Swedish, 1950, 144 pp.)
May. 8-14: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (American of Chinese descent, 1976, 209 pp.)
May. 15-21: One, None and 100,000 by Luigi Pirandello (Italian, 1926, 176 pp.)
May. 22-28: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (Norwegian, 1991, 544 pp.)
May. 29-Jun. 4: The Collector by John Fowles (English, 1963, 320 pp.)
Jun. 5-11: Amsterdam Stories by Nescio (Dutch, 1933, 176 pp.)
Jun. 12-18: The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (Anglo-Irish, 1938, 418 pp.)
Jun. 19-25: Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin (French of Cuban descent, 1977, 320 pp.)
Jun. 26-Jul. 2: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (Scottish, 1824, 210 pp.)
Jul. 3-9: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (English, 1847, 286 pp.)
Jul. 10-16: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Dominican, 1966, 176 pp.)
Jul. 17-23: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Japanese, 2005, 288 pp.)
Jul. 24-30: The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (Polish, 1965, 234 pp.)
Jul. 31-Aug. 6: Guerrillas by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidadian of Indian descent, 1975, 248 pp.)
Aug. 7-13: Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet (French, 1957, 128 pp.)
Aug. 14-20: Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenyan, 1977, 432 pp.)
Aug. 21-27: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Canadian of Sri Lankan descent, 1992, 305 pp.)
Aug. 28-Sep. 3: The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano (English of Igbo descent, 1789, 104 pp.)
Sep. 4-10: Persuasion by Jane Austen (English, 1818, 288 pp.)
Sep. 11-17: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese, 1948, 175 pp.)
Sep. 18-24: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (Russian, 1957, 208 pp.)
Sep. 25-Oct. 1: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (American, 1994, 352 pp.)
Oct. 2-8: Candide by Voltaire (French, 1759, 144 pp.)
Oct. 9-15: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (Hungarian, 1941, 288 pp.)
Oct. 16-22: The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût (Indo-Dutch, 1955, 296 pp.)
Oct. 23-29: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (American, 1881, 336 pp.)
Oct. 30-Nov. 5: La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola (French, 1890, 432 pp.)
Nov. 6-12: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (English, 1855, 480 pp.)
Nov. 13-19: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (Anglo-Irish, 1726, 178 pp.)
Nov. 20-26: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Indian, 1997, 333 pp.)
Nov. 27-Dec. 3: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Danish, 1994, 480 pp.)
Dec. 4-10: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian, 2000, 416 pp.)
Dec. 11-31: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russian, 1877, 864 pp.)

Here goes nothing.

Announcement: “52 Weeks of Literature”