There’s no shortage of fiction that might serve as an introduction to South Africa, as I discovered when I travelled there last October. I opted for the book that claimed to be the country’s first novel, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), some township stories by Isaac Mogotsi and A Chain of Voices, a historical novel by the modern writer André Brink. But the first thing that went into my suitcase was a book I had come across on a library shelf thirty years previously and which had remained in my mind ever since: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, which uses the tale of a black parson in search of his son to illuminate the state of South African society in the mid-twentieth century.
Paton’s subtitle compresses the theme of the book into six words: ‘A Story of Comfort in Desolation’. Even as the tragedy unfolds in the often hostile environment of Johannesburg in the late 1940s, it brings its protagonist, the parson Stephen Kumalo, into contact with compassion and generosity the like of which he has never encountered. The apparent simplicity with which the novelist tells his tale manages to knit together love for a beautiful land, sorrow at its condition and a very tentative hope for its future.
Alan Paton was a teacher and writer who became a politician. Born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, in 1903, he spent several years as principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for Boys in Johannesburg and wrote Cry, the Beloved Country shortly after the end of the Second World War. At the Reformatory, he introduced a system based on respect and trust that many thought unworkable, and transformed the place from a prison to a school. He went on to found and become national president of the South African Liberal Party, though the party was dissolved in the 1960s on the grounds of its mixed-race membership.
Paton’s view is clear in his novel. In one of the early chapters, another black priest, the
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