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cry, the beloved country

24 October 2003

I can't pass up a chance to look at used books, whether at a street stall, a yard sale, a flea market, or the Strand. When you look at a great many used books, you get to know the perennials: the novels of Thomas B. Costain; John Roy Carlson's Under Cover; Reader's Digest condensed three-deckers; Johnny Tremain, and that hardiest of perennials, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. When Cry was named the most recent Oprah's Book Club selection in September, Scribner shipped almost a million copies to retailers. This seemed excessive to me; there must be half a million copies on sale in garages all across America.

The prevalence of titles second-hand does not mean that they aren't worth reading. People respect books that have great messages. They love books that wrap them up in other worlds and take them out of their own. Some books do both. Books with a message only may be bought in large numbers, but folks don't bond with them. When it's time for spring cleaning, out they go with the bowling shoes and the George Foreman sandwich grills.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a well-wrought, earnest book. In 1946 Paton, a South African civil servant in his early 40s, composed Cry, his first novel, during a working vacation. It was published in 1948 and became a bestseller and a mainstay of Scribner's backlist. Paton went on to a distinguished career as a writer and anti-apartheid activist.

Cry, the Beloved Country is about two men – Reverend Stephen Kumalo, black, and James Jarvis, white squire – and the crime that links them. Kumalo's son, a drifter, has killed Jarvis's son, an activist for racial equality. The crime, committed during a burglary in Johannesburg, is needless and almost unmotivated. The theme of the novel is the fear that keeps South Africans from pulling together as a true nation. One the one hand, the specter of "native crime" whips whites into a racist frenzy. On the other, fear is returned for fear. When asked why he has killed Arthur Jarvis, Absalom Kumalo tells the court: "I did not mean to kill him, only I was afraid."

Out of this tragedy comes redemption. Jarvis, unsympathetic to native civil rights, is won over by his son's posthumous writings. Kumalo learns patience and forbearance from his ordeal. Things begin to improve in their dusty valley, despite the inertial forces of fear and ignorance.

Cry, the Beloved Country is louring and humorless, in the tradition of 20th-century political novels like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Graham Greene's Power and the Glory, John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, and Tomás Rivera’s …y no se lo tragó la tierra. Its message is noble, its power evident. Its prose is mannered: much of Cry, the Beloved Country is written in an English that is intended to emulate Zulu syntax. (Think this is why so many of the sentences, including the title, are in the imperative mood.) It's a novel of important ideas which succeeds much better as a textbook of those ideas than as a work of art.

Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). New York: Scribner, 2003.