Cry, The Beloved Country, is a profound, majestic novel that depicts South Africa during the povertised years of British rule. It is a novel about a black man's country under white man's law. It is about all kinds of injustices that man inflicts on his own brothers.
Alan Paton, born in Peitermaritzburg, Natal, saw South Africa in the worst of times. Britain was the ruling power, and in a country that had belonged to the black man for centuries, where the overwhelming majority of the population was black, and where black man was the infrastructure, black was considered inferior. It was a time of racial, political, and social injustice, and it was all directed at the black man. Black was considered stupid, black was considered dirty, and unintelliegent. As Alan Paton's Robin Hood, Arthur Jarvis, writes in a speech in the book, "We say we withhold education because the black child has not the intelligence to profit by it; we withhold oppurtunity to develop gifts because black man have no gifts; we justify our action by saying that it took us thousands of years to achieve our own advancement, and it would be foolish to suppose that it will take the black man any lesser time, and that therefore there is no need to hurry. We shift our ground again when a black man does acheive something remarkable, and decide that it is a Christian kindness not to let black men become remarkable. Thus, even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment."
This alone is so well-written, so well-synchronised with the rest of the book, that it sends shivers down my spine to read it. Paton is a master of words, of nuances, of dialogue, and meaning. He will draw you into a world where it is not difficult to understand the plight of the black man in his own country, and it is even easier to become one of them, on their side, hoping for all it's worth that they survive.
He adopts John Steinbeck's method of dialogue, with the dash coming before the actual speech and no quote marks. It gives the novel fluidity, makes it all come together. It also lends a sort of serious sadness to the characters' speeches, and it makes their words resound in silence, almost like a word spoken aloud in a lonely,deserted, desolate church, coming from nowhere and ending nowhere.
Religion is a centerpoint, as Paton's main character is a Zulu pastor whose church is in a povertised, dry valley "of old men and old women, of mothers and children." The men have gone away to Johannesburg, one of South Africa's major cities whose central industry is gold mining. It is a city of sin and dirt, that has come, because of the white man, between the tribe and its people. Paton displays the city and its people, black and white, as corrupt, so evil that even someone innocent and whole, fresh from the grasslands, is overtaken by its filth. This is hard for a man whose innocent life revolved, in its entirety, around the principles of God, Church, and Goodness.
Stephen Kumalo, the pastor, comes to Johannesburg to seek out his sister. She went to look for her husband, who disappeared into the jaws of the city and never came back. She also is eaten, and Kumalo gives her up for lost. His son, Absalom Kumalo, goes to Johannesburg to look for his aunt, and is never seen or heard from again. Stephen, upon receiving news of his ailing sister from a kind-hearted pastor in Johannesburg, gathers up his worldly posessions and sets off in search of his lost family. He combs the streets and slums of Johannesburg and its surrounding areas with his pastor friend, following the ghosts of his sister and son from one place to another without pause. His friend, at first, seems inconspicuous and unimportant, but as the story progresses, Paton subtlely introduces Johannesburg through the eyes of one that knows of it's ability to corrupt, maim, and discard. This friend drops many hints of wisdom, of profoundness, and of depth.
Kumalo finds his sister and son, but in what condition I will leave you to discover. The novel will not be the same if you know what's going to happen, not because it's like that with every book, but because the surprise of its incidents is part of its enigma, and Johannesburg's horror.
This novel is so rich, so adept in describing the sorrow of mankind, the frustration, the incredible sadness of life in a torn world, that it will draw you in, capture you in a way you never believed possible, in a way you will remember long after you turn the last page.