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


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