Susan Green Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Susan Green

Books You Should Know ...

Cry, the Beloved Country

(1 November 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol 12 No. 44, 1 November 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Cry, the Beloved Country
a novel by Alan Paton
published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1948; 278 pp.

One could read magazine articles galore and still not get the feeling of the tragedy of South Africa as one does from this deeply stirring novel by Alan Paton – deeply stirring in spite of some outstanding faults. Into the story of a native Christian parson on a quest for his sister and son in the bewildering city of Johannesburg, Mr. Paton has skillfully and with passionate protest woven an expose of the economic, social and emotional chaos that European imperialism has brought to the South African natives.

Briefly, the story is this. Rev. Stephen Kumalo, in his small, poverty-stricken town of Ndorsheni, Natal, receives a letter from “his brother in Christ,” Theophilus Msimangu of Johannesburg, that the sister of the former is sick, and should be taken care of. Not only has this sister Gertrude disappeared into the all-engulfing Johannesburg, but son Absalom, sent to find Gertrude, never returned. So the elder Kumalo and his wife decide that now the old man himself must make the journey to Johannesburg. Arrived there,, with the help of Msimangu, he easily finds his sister, who is sick, only in the sense of having sunk into crime and prostitution.

Tracing his son is harder. He follows the trail from place to place, through miserable slums and a flimsy shanty town, into a reform school from which the son has been released, to a young girl pregnant with the son’s baby and finally into jail and the courtroom where Absalom, betrayed by his more hardened accomplices, is tried and convicted of the murder of a white man.

“White Man’s Burden”

Briefly, the economic, social and emotional picture portrayed is this. The white man has come and acquired some of the best farm land. The natives have been crowded into land difficult to cultivate, without irrigation, without help of scientific farming. As the native land has to be divided with the rising generations, the holdings become smaller, more difficult to farm economically and stark poverty results. The lure of the city is then irresistible. There the gold mines that are the main industry and that have enriched the Europeans, provide jobs to the natives, who come without their families. Since the natives do all the work, Johannesburg provides many jobs – but not enough pay, miserable housing, no social status, no family life, no moral norms to guide the black people come from the land, their own tribal customs and moral guides irretrievably shattered by European “civilization.”

In a city like Johannesburg, the underscored contrast between the status of the native exploited and the European exploiters acts as a goad to crime. And fear stalks the land. There is the fear of the white person for his safety. There is the fear of the white people of what will happen to their “civilization” if the natives rise against them as an organized mass – rumblings of which can be heard in strikes at the mines, on buses – rumblings already tainted with Stalinism.

Mr. Paton also merges into his panoramic whole the picture of the urgent, variegated and confused activities of all kinds of people to do something about their problems. On the lowest level are the whites trembling for their safety, position and wealth, demanding more police protection, more laws and severer punishment for “native lawbreakers.” The missionaries, priests and religious reformers work along different lines. The white man, Jarvis, killed by young Kumalo, is presented as a militant liberal, pulling the robes of hypocrisy off Christian “civilization” and championing the rights of the natives.

Mr. Paton also has a word of condemnation for native politicians – represented by Pastor Kumalo’s younger brother – who arouse the natives to the point where action is called for, but lead them nowhere. Finally, in the course of the story, we see the natives themselves, engaged in a bus strike, backed solidly by bus users, all natives, women and old men trudging miles and miles from work and to work.

The weakness of the book is that Mr. Paton, in spite of this great, confused, unresolved milieu that he has so beautifully portrayed for the readers, seem to find his own pat and pretty solution. In the end the poor father of Kumalo, the young murderer, and the rich father of Jarvis, the murdered liberal, out of the depths of their grief and their understanding of the country’s misfortunes, develop a friendship. The elder Jarvis, influenced by his son’s ideas, becomes the patron saint of Kumalo’s poverty-stricken community. He provides milk so babies can live, hires an agricultural expert to teach and organize the farmers to cultivate their land better, influences the authorities to construct an irrigation system. Old Jarvis even sends his charming little grandson to give additional happiness to the old native. So the book closes on this happy personal note and presents also the unrealistic “happy solution” for the social problems.

In further criticism of Mr. Paton’s work one might say that his characters are not people but types: the native parson, his Christian brethren who help him, the woman Gertrude lured to prostitution, the bewildered young Kumalo so obviously the victim of circumstances, the rich white farmer Jarvis, his liberal son, and so on. They are indeed types used for the story Mr. Paton has to tell. However, something in Mr. Paton and in his style saves his characters from being wooden images. He seems to feel and convey the essence of the type as something special, and in his style there is a poetry and a passion that embellish his people. In fact, Cry, the Beloved Country is something of an epic prose poem.

Susan Green Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers’ Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 7 October 2018