30 Books That Changed My Life, Part II: Cry, The Beloved Country

2 04 2012

Quelle surprise: I loved studying English at high school. Of all of my teachers, Greg O’Sullivan, who taught me from Year 8 through to 3 Unit English for the Higher School Certificate, was one of two who had the greatest impact on my life. Not every book in the 1980s school curriculum set my brain and heart on fire. This one managed to do both.

Cry, The Beloved Country: Alan Paton, Jonathan Cape (1948)

Written before, but published at the introduction of South Africa’s apartheid laws, Cry, The Beloved Country was a shock to the system when assigned as a compulsory text to my Year 9 English class in 1986. We were the best English students in a baby-boom bumper crop of about 200 students and had started forming our little views about the world. We had grown up knowing only an apartheid South Africa and that it was wrong. Miss Current Affairs Nerd watched riots in townships on the news. I preferred “Sun City” to “We Are the World”. Raised in a left-wing household, I knew that South Africa had become a pariah on the sporting fields, to our unions, activists, and that our Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had taken on one of my most-loathed politicians, Britain’s PM, Margaret Thatcher over South Africa’s repugnant system of government. Paton’s book shook my little window into South Africa. By the time I put it down, Cry, The Beloved Country introduced shades of grey, even if they were extremely faint to my 15-year-old eyes.

I couldn’t grasp why the main character, Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo was so determined to save his way of life in rural Natal. The ‘black homeland’ policy seemed desperately evil, and with one purpose in mind – to deprive black Africans of land and opportunities. It reminded me of the system of Aboriginal missions in Australia. Then the grey tinge … is the greater evil to be found in the cities, where black men leave their families and tribes for permits to work in the gold mines building a new, unstoppable South Africa? The central refrain: they go to Johannesburg and they do not return.

A letter from Johannesburg drives Kumalo on the trail first trod by his son, Absalom – to the city, to find his ‘ill’ sister Gertrude. Kumalo is portrayed as the ultimate naïf in the city, a sort of ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington‘. For all its built wonders, Johannesburg is a place where people are killed simply crossing the street. It is dark and dirty, reflected in the life of Kumalo’s sister. Gertrude is a prostitute, not the Queen of Sheba but queen of the ‘shebeen’ (sly grog house). She agrees to return to Natal. Stephen Kumalo has ‘saved’ one soul – but there is one seemingly beyond redemption: Absalom.

If Stephen Kumalo is an ‘Uncle Tom’ – a compliant, ‘good’ black man, his brother John appears to be the opposite. He speaks, with great flourish, about the injustices perpetrated against black South Africans, but is careful never to go ‘too far’. He has benefited materially from the system, his narrative is estranged from the political voices and protests I knew – he is wary of black men gaining power, because power corrupts. Only the very good black man could gain power and not be corrupted. It’s interesting to me, looking back now on the veneration of Nelson Mandela, the living embodiment of John Kumalo’s ‘very good black man’. My apartheid-era hero is a man who died: Steve Biko (more on Biko to come in another post).

As the search for Absalom takes his father and his companion, Father Msimangu through reform schools, an unwed girl pregnant to his son, and finally, to jail: his son has been arrested for killing a white man. Worse: his son is accused of murdering a ‘good’ white man – Arthur Jarvis, the activist son of Kumalo’s ‘neighbour’, the wealthy Natal landholder, James  Jarvis. Arthur Jarvis is everything a liberal, white reader can associate with – a man whose social views are in no doubt; he sees racial injustice and ‘we’ are grateful for the life of such a man. His writings force his father to accept his share of the ‘white man’s burden’ and carry on his work, from his position of privilege. In the meantime, the other father, Stephen Kumalo, must struggle with the shock and anger that all of his ‘goodness’ has not been rewarded by God. His son will hang. His sister is a low woman. His brother is one lost to Johannesburg. Turning to an English priest, Stephen’s struggle is  the essence of the novel, and to a 15-year-old suburban white girl, of South Africa itself. Why love, fiercely, proudly, when that love is predicated on fear? Stephen Kumalo loves his God, his family, his way of life in rural Natal, and yet these things are under threat – not only from white men, but from urbanisation and the decay of the tribe? Why love Absalom – the son who represents everything that white South Africa fears of the overwhelming black majority – petty thief turned murderer? Why love this ‘beloved country’? Yet, in Stephen Kumalo’s reconciliation with his condemned son, and James Jarvis’ awakening to its racial cleavages through his lost son, this pre-apartheid novel may well prove an allegory for post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela, the good man, sought to heal the beloved country through ‘truth and reconciliation’, not retribution. As the book closes, Kumalo seeks small improvements to the village through the tribal way, through the Chief.  Instead, it is James Jarvis who helps Kumalo achieve his vision of better farming land. A new dawn? Yes, but the dawn of Absalom’s execution, and so we cry.

Cry, The Beloved Country changed me. It made me think hard and fast about race relations in Australia; the systemic, institutionalised abuse and marginalisation of Aboriginals, ‘our’ fear of the ‘other’, our pride, our love and our xenophobia. The next year, I spent my summer holidays on an exchange visit to Japan. It was my first time on a plane; but more about travel tomorrow.

Until then …

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