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Comfort in Desolation

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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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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 estimable Theophilus Msimangu, describing the drift of people away from the Church and into radical politics, says: ‘It suited the white man to break the tribe . . . But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken. . . There are some white men who give their lives to build up what is broken. But they are not enough . . . They are afraid, that is the truth. It is fear that rules this land.’ Many of the characters in the novel have no time for the religion that sustains Msimangu and Kumalo. But much of the book is written in a lyrical, old-fashioned prose reminiscent of the King James Bible, giving a sense of the traditional forms of address of the Zulu people. The effect is to dignify the indigenous culture of the land and emphasize the contrast, not only between conservative rural communities and the big, brash city, but also between black and white. Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a journey, both actual and metaphorical, taken by Kumalo, a humble village parson living near Carisbrooke in the hills of southern Natal. Receiving a letter from Msimangu, a mission priest in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, he learns that his much younger sister, Gertrude, needs his help. With no experience of the wider world, Kumalo undertakes the long and intimidating journey, not only to rescue Gertrude but also to seek out his son, Absalom, and his brother, John, both also in Johannesburg and no longer in contact. The process of finding these relatives introduces Kumalo to the gritty realities of city life, its politics and the miserable conditions in which most blacks live there. His growing apprehensions, as he follows the trail of his son, are justified when he discovers that Absalom has been charged with murder. Moreover, the murdered man is, by a horrible twist of fate, the son of James Jarvis, the landowner (white, of course) whose farm adjoins the valley where Kumalo lives and whom he knows by sight. Jarvis’s son, Arthur, though the reader never meets him, is the catalyst for what happens in the latter part of the book. Unbeknown to Jarvis senior, Arthur has been drawn more and more deeply into social action since leaving home to work in Johannesburg. His father discovers that his library is full of literature and poetry, of books on South Africa – in both English and Afrikaans – and works dealing with religion, politics and crime. Several decades before Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama were to tell the world of the significance to them of Abraham Lincoln, the fictional Arthur Jarvis possesses hundreds of books on Lincoln’s life and works. He writes papers and gives talks, he runs a boys’ club and leaves behind him many papers making clear his desire for a more equitable society. The scenes in which his father discovers these aspects of his murdered son have a quiet but profound effect. The story of how Kumalo and Jarvis do eventually meet, and the influence each has on the other, is the story of the rest of the book. Paton’s portrayal of the two fathers – inarticulate in their grief and separated by the gulf that society has thrown between them, but nevertheless closer than anyone else can guess – is extraordinarily sympathetic and poignant. It is exhilarating, and it is unbearably painful; it is heartening, and it is tragic. Cry, the Beloved Country is a beautifully crafted book. It is arranged in three parts: the first is Kumalo’s story, from the time he receives the letter from Msimangu until just before his son’s trial; the second is Jarvis’s; and the third covers the period when they have both returned to Carisbrooke. The first two parts open with the same words, lyrically describing ‘the beloved country’:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld . . . The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil.

At this point, the opening paragraph changes: in the first part it leads the reader down into the pitifully overgrazed and ruinous valley in which Kumalo lives. In the second, it describes the completely different world of the Jarvises’ nearby verdant farm. Here and there in the book, anonymous voices intervene in the narrative to provide a commentary on events. Though they are not named, their identities are clear from what they say. There is the newspaper reader, accepting at face value all she reads about the strikes; and there is the hard-boiled capitalist, enthusiastically supporting the exploitation of land and people in order to extract newly discovered gold. There are the people of the shanty towns, trying to find shelter in an overcrowded place; and there are white men at public meetings and white women in parks, discussing the merits of more police, or better public education, or the official enforcement of apartheid (still in the future in 1948). And sometimes the author himself throws in a sad, ironic comment, a lament for what might have been in ‘the lovely land’:
We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog . . . and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo . . . We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings, and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.
One reads Cry, the Beloved Country today with the knowledge that conditions in South Africa were about to deteriorate even beyond those that Paton describes. In 1948 – the same year that the book was published – the National Party came to power on a wave of Afrikaner nationalism, and the country descended into decades of institutional apartheid. Through the character of Msimangu, Paton had already expressed the fear that ‘one day when they turn to loving they will find we are turned to hating’: sadly he died in 1988, just a few years too soon to witness the remarkable sight of a new leader persuading South Africans that goodwill and mutual respect, of the sort he described in his novel, could, after all, produce a largely peaceful transition to democracy and majority rule.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Annabel Walker 2010


About the contributor

Annabel Walker once worked as a journalist and author in London, but moved home to Dartmoor with her family twelve years ago.

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