Sunday, March 15, 2009
Alan Paton’s widely-celebrated novel Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Scribner, 2003) is set in the highly divided country of South Africa, at the prewar time when apartheid or the separation of white citizens from black ones was being institutionalized by South Africa’s white-ruled Nationalist party. This setting contributed to the development of the story which puts racial segregation at the heart of the touching story of human love and compassion.
The foremost protagonist in the story is the native pastor Stephen Kumalo. 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 by his yet-married, pregnant daughter-in-law. Above this disgrace, the growing degree of hardship in dealing with his corrupt brother John, with the trial result, with his encounter of James, the murdered white man’s father, and generally with the deepening wound caused by apartheid, tests this man of faith to prove the umfundizi—God’s servant—that he is. As a proof, Kumalo himself philosophizes, “Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? (p. 94) and ends his reflection with Psalms 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).
Another protagonist is James Jarvis, the father of the murdered white Kafferboetie (brother to blacks). He remained forgiving and philanthropic although the one responsible for his son’s murder belongs to the native he gave generous help to. He was motivated by his son’s writings, and being a dweller in Ndotseni’s neighboring High Place, he did not hesitate to show generosity to the black people although there is apartheid going on.
The main conflict involves Absalom: having been caught in the oppressive system (intending to fulfill 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 haunts him, but the plan comes late when the police arrests 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 conflict was resolved when the court decided to issue a death sentence to Absalom, although the reader’s sympathy falls for his father, and especially because justice deserves to be served to him and to be offered to the grieving family of the man he killed.
The theme of goodness and forgiveness appears to give justice to the story of a native man and his quest of a lifetime, in response to their stark contrast of social injustice and racial prejudice which are controversial issues discussed in the novel. Despite the ordeals Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis have to deal with, they remain good and forgiving, actions that God-fearing individuals like them manifest naturally. Stephen Kumalo did not turn against his prostitute sister or to his criminal son as are evident in Books I and II, nor did James Jarvis, who instead of neglecting the native people among whom was his son’s murderer, he helped save their village from famine, as is evident in Book III.
The novel is full of local color, and having been set in exotic Africa, has native words with their translation along the text or defined in the accompanying glossary. The African language Zulu equivalents of Mr., Mrs., and other addresses of respect were used instead of the English, like Inkosi (Mr.), Inkonsikazi (Mrs.), Inkonsana (little master) and Umfundizi (parson or, sometimes, sir). African descriptions like kloof (ravine), kraal (enclosure for cattle), titihoya (a local bird) also give an alien touch. Even Afrikaans, the simplified version of the language of Holland-descended Afrikaners, figures in the novel, like the word Kafferboetie, which describes people championing the rights of non-Europeans. The native Xosa appears as well, as in the word Tixo, which roughly means Great Spirit.