Wednesday, September 24, 2008
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.” So begins the lyrical Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Scribner, 2003), a gripping novel by Alan Paton. However, such poetic passage is a stark contrast of the issues present in the prose, like social injustice and racial prejudice. Not to be outdone, the themes of goodness and forgiveness emanate to give justice to this story of a native man and his quest of a lifetime.
In Book 1, Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu minister, travels from the picturesque South African countryside Ndotsheni to the urbane Johannesburg in search of his son Absalom and his sister Gertrude. He is moved to discover that his sister, originally intending to find her missing husband in the city, has been reduced to whoring herself and neglecting her son in the process. He gathers the mother and the child for home and, accompanied by another pastor, Msimangu, embarks on a long, tedious search for Absalom. The extensive journey leads them to the prison, where the young man is languishing for having accidentally slew Engineer Arthur Jarvis, a white Kafferboetie (an advocate to the cause of African natives), whose house Absalom, his cousin, and another native purpose to rob. Native burglary like these and other crimes are rampant in Johannesburg, so the alarmed white citizens “will ask for a new native policy, that will show the natives who is the master” (p.111) in a country growing apart because of hatred and racial discrimination. Book 2 brings the readers into the trial of Absalom, who is defended by a white, pro deo (for God) lawyer but is ultimately sentenced to death by hanging as a consequence of killing Engr. Jarvis. The murdered white man’s father, James Jarvis, feels that the verdict is, as pronounced by the widowed Mary’s brother, “right, absolutely right. It couldn’t have been any other way” (p.246). Nonetheless, this is not the lone development as far as James is concerned, because after being touched by his dead son’s pro-black works in the study, he begins to become a philanthropist, giving generous help to his son’s murderer’s famished village, in which James dwells as wealthy landholder. Book 3 follows the getting-through of the Ndotsheni natives, and the prevalence of the goodness and forgiveness of James for the senseless killing of his son. The story closes with the hike of Kumalo up the mountain to pray for his son, who is to be executed in Pretoria that very day.
The foremost protagonist in the story is the native pastor Stephen Kumalo, amplified by his being part of the commencement and closure scenes in he novel. Most of the scenes focusing on him show that he is a pillar of strength despite the disgrace by his prostituted sister, by his murderous son, and his yet-married, pregnant daughter-in-law. Above this disgrace, the compounding degree of hardship in dealing with his corrupt brother John, with the trial result, with his encounter of James, and generally with the deepening wound spawned by apartheid test this man of faith to prove the umfundizi (God’s servant) that he is. Kumalo himself philosophizes, “Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break all about us?” (p.94) and ends his reflection with Psalm 23:4. In a higher level, his struggle is representative of the struggles of the black people, because “the white man has broken the tribe…but it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken” (p.54). Kumalo the protagonist is a black man in “a country under white man’s law” (back cover blurb), the same law that has meted death to his son.
The antagonist, clearly not one of the characters (for the major characters Kumalo and James are presented in white), is the oppressive system that has “eaten up” (p.244) Absalom. This system that segregates the black and whites—shown in the bus protest scene, the court scene, the image of Mrs. Jarvis’ funeral—has the natives turning on the whites, who are criticized by the murdered engineer for coming up with racist rules on the permissible and the impermissible. In South Africa, the mine capitalizing whites become rich, while the black miners themselves—true sons of the land excavating for natural valuables—remain poor. In the words of carpenter-turned politician John Kumalo, “Is it we that must be kept poor so that others may stay rich?” When human rights violations occur, the newspapers scream with the headline, pinpointing “THE NATIVE” as culprit (although done by the native, why the need for reference for color?). An aside: when the novel was new in the market, the antagonist was institutionalized: South Africa’s Nationalist party implemented apartheid (racial segregation). Kumalo alludes to the fact that the natives leaving home for the city get corrupted because they get exposed and then become entangled in the web of system that promotes inequality and hate among South Africa’s people.
The main conflict involves Absalom: having been caught in the system (intending to consummate an evil purpose at a white man’s expense), does he have to suffer the action’s consequence or not? After killing the engineer accidentally, he is seen as confused whether to confess to the police or not. His conscience is unbraiding, but the plan comes late when the police arrest him. Absalom has turned evil when he is exposed to the city, but after losing his innocence, he is answerable for the misdeeds he has conducted. Hence, the court decides to mete out a death sentence to Absalom, although the readers’ sympathy falls for his father, and especially because justice deserves to be served to him and be offered to the grieving family of the man he killed.
Of the characters, perhaps the least developed is Stephen Kumalo’s wife, who appears only significantly at the start and end of the novel. Her limited visibility shows her as an understanding mother and wife. Nevertheless, she could have been pumped with more flesh and blood were she depicted to be non-repressive of her womanly emotions. For instance, when Kumalo along with his daughter-in-law and Gertrude’s son arrives at the beginning of Book 3, he informs her of the fate that has transpired him in his journey to Johannesburg, and she reacts by saying a sheepish “I understand you” (p.254) and then “bows her head” (p.254). References on her throughout the novel do not point to a strong woman, and the readers probably expect a woman who suddenly receives such shocking news to weep inconsolably (as in the case of Mrs. Jarvis upon her son’s death), to squat wailing on the floor (like Gertrude when she is confronted by Stephen on her prostitution) or to die of depression (arguably like Mrs. Jarvis). She can still be made more human.
The best recommendation that this review can give is for potential readers to go out their way and read the novel. In unjust times like these when binaries (black/white, male/female, straight/gay etc.) render a divided world, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country shows that the human spirit is indestructible in the face of injustice and hatred. Truly, when inequality is existent, all sorts of weird things make people turn on each other, whereas the celebration of differences may be enough to be had. Only when justice is served that the world becomes one at peace. Quoting from the novel’s last line, “when that dawn will come…why, that is a secret.”