NB: There are spoilers in the latter half of this review.
My intention was to write about Jane Harris' Gillespie and I but instead I find my thoughts turning relentlessly to Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved County (1948). It's a book of Big Emotions and I feel as though I have to release them before I can come back to Harris' late Victorian pastiche. I picked it up on a whim last week but it isn't whimsical. Sonorous, spiritual, a little sentimental perhaps, but not a whiff of whimsy about it. And I didn't expect there would be: this is a classic of South African fiction, written on the cusp of apartheid about a country riven by political and racial difference. Big Themes to go with the Big Emotions.
Stephen Kumalo is an aging Anglican priest, who has lived out his life in the village of Ndotsheni in the Umzimkulu valley in Natal. Drought and poverty are the twin stars of his later life; his little leaking church shelters only infants, women and old people. Everyone else has gone to work in the mines or to the towns. The situation is dire, almost apocolyptic:
The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them anymore.
This last statement is true in two senses: it cannot support them bodily, and it cannot keep them at home in the face of the temptations of modern life. Kumalo's own brother, sister and only son have all left the valley to go to Johannesburg and have not returned. They haven't sent news in years; and then Stephen receives a letter from a fellow clergyman in Johannesburg, saying that his sister is ill and he must come to her. His wife agrees that he must go, and while he is there he can seek out their son, their only child, Absalom. And so off he goes on the train, travelling for several days, this old man who has barely left his valley. Everywhere is multiplicity, choice, boggling profusion:
One must catch buses, but not as here [Natal], where the only bus that comes is the right bus. For there there is a multitude of buses, and only one bus in ten, one bus in twenty maybe, is the right bus. If you take the wrong bus, you may travel to quite some other place. And they say it is danger to cross the street, yet one must needs cross it.
The news in Johannesburg is 'heavy' on Kumalo: he discovers his sister living in a den of prostitutes and his brother astranged from the church, involved in dangerous politics. But his son, worse and worse, has just commited a burglary and in the process has shot and killed a white man. Not just any white man either, but (in the way of novels) the progressive son of the English landowner at Ndotsheni, James Jarvis. Kumalo must live through this, supporting his son through the trial, facing the shame of the disintegration of his family and the death of his tribal pride. His only help comes from city strangers, the chief amongst whom is Msimangu, the priest who first wrote to him.
Cry.. was Paton's first novel, written in 1946 during his time as Principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for young (Black African) offenders. It expresses his deep and aching frustration at the injustice of South African racial politics, and the widening divide between white and black. It was published in America and the UK just months before the National Party came to power and introduced their apartheid policies. It was banned in South Africa itself, not because it presents 'native criminals' in a sympathetic light, but because it strikes a balance between the fear and confusion of the white ruling classes, and the poverty and degradation of the black South Africans. It shows the situation from both sides: Kumalo's point of view opens the novel, but Book 2 switches to look through the eyes of James Jarvis, the father of the murdered man.
It is a surpisingly practical book in some ways; it doesn't bemoan the problem, it wants to find a solution for it. "It is not in my heart to hate a white man" says Msimangu, "It was a white man who brought my father out of darkness... The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again." There is very little dwelling on the traumatic colonial past; it is the mistakes of the present that focus the narrative. Msimangu more than any character seems like Paton's own voice. He thinks that now or never is the time for change: "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating."
The contemporary urgency of the novel means that, inevitably, it has the passion of polemic. The reader is an audience to the narrator's exhortations and exclamations. The tone is sometimes fraught, even hysterical:
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply... For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
Paton poses the question of how the wounds of division could be mended but then despairs: We do not know, we do not know. We shall lived from day to day and put more locks on the doors... And our lives will shrink...the light of life will be thrust down.
Is it too much? It would be now, I think, if this were a retrospective novel about apartheid, a historical novel. But Paton was in the moment, writing a novel with an ultimately hopeful tone in an apparently hopeless, intractable situation. The divisions he sees run right to the depth of South African society, and they aren't only racial. They are generational too. There is Stephen, deferential, respectful - "A white man's dog, that is what they called him and his kind. Well, that was the way his life had been lived, and that was the way he would die" - and James Jarvis, condescending, proud, but firmly fair. Compare this with a younger generation, struggling to come to terms with an identity, and to find a place in the world. "It was the white man who gave us so little land, a young agricultural worker tells Stephen, "it was the white man who took us away from the land to go to work. And we were ignorant also. It is all these things together that have made this valley desolate. Therefore, what this good white man does it only a repayment." How can the wounds caused and accepted by one generation be healed by another?
God it seems, is Paton's answer. God and - inspired by God, through belief in God - human kindness. Msimungu offers a suggestion: "I can see only one hope for our country, and that is when white and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it." This is one interpretation of what happens in the end, with Jarvis and Kumalo working together to restore the valley at Ndotsheni. Theirs is a stirring narrative of forgiveness and empathy, and the portrait of these aging opposites, finally coming to understand one another, is incredibly moving.
Paton is not so naive as to think that this kind of mutual charity and feeling can heal the breach in a whole nation. Stephen admits..."might not another man, returning to another valley, have found none of these things? Why was it given one man to have his pain transmuted into gladness? And might not another, having no sure awareness, live with pain that never ended?" The novelistic coincidences are brought out and aired: "Why was there a compulsion upon him to pray for the restoration of Ndotsheni, and why was there a white man there on the tops, to do in this valley what no other could have done? And why of all men, the father of the man who had been murdered by his son?"
Still the workings of God are strong in Cry - the cadences are biblical, and the answers to all its riddles end in faith. The effect of the book relies, to a great extent, on giving ourselves up to the ineffable mystery of a saviour, and engaging with the gospel parables of sacrifice, redemption and resurrection. Paton was a devoted Christian, and it shows, and (dare I say?) it works here. Even the stubbornest non-believing cell in my body couldn't help but respond to the imagery of the final moments of the novel, when Stephen Kumalo witnesses the sun rise, as it has risen every morning for thousands of years, on the morning of his son's execution.