'Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of it all if he gives too much.'
You wait for that moment to come in the book as you surely know it must, because the title quote has to be in there somewhere, and when it did I was poleaxed.
It is The Reader magazine (now can you believe on issue 43 and with each one I love it more and more) I have to thank for finally making me settle down to read Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. A book arrives from them each quarter, a nice surprise, and I read and write fifty words on it, give it a star rating and it goes in the magazine on the Reader's Connect page.
So the dust had barely settled on Port Eliot festival and I knew I had a scant week to read this one before the deadline, and at a time when the whim was rising and the very last thing I wanted to do was read to order, so half of me was Mrs Very Reluctant and feeling a bit flopdawdle (new word) about doing anything..
But the other half had just experienced that amazing conversation with Gillian Slovo, so that half of me was Mrs Keenasmustard and fortunately she won the day, but a mere ten pages in and I was already thinking 'why on earth haven't I read this before?'
Stephen Kumalo, a minister in a remote church, who heads for Johannesburg to track down his missing son Absalom. What gradually becomes clear is that all is not well and Absalom is in serious trouble. The 'trouble' becomes increasingly serious with each place that Stephen arrives at, only to find each time that his son has moved on until eventually it is apparent that Absalom has killed a white activist during a bungled robbery. The irony of that is not lost in a city where few white people seem able to see the evils of apartheid, or the fundamental damage that has been done to 4/5ths of the people who have been given just 1/10th of the land. A people who slave to provide the gold from the mines for the remaining 1/5th living on their 9/10ths. Arthur Jarvis was one such white man and his death will have profound repercussions not least because his father is the landowner on which Stephen Kumalo's church and livelihood rest.
Writtern in 1946 and published in 1948, the year the National Party came to power and imposed apartheid, Cry the Beloved Country is a story of not only the greater broken tribe that is apartheid Africa, but also of the smaller one, the nuclear family, as two fathers mourn the 'loss' of their sons whilst striving to mend what is broken in their own lives in order to start to heal the greater damage. It is about being a parent, about internalizing the trangressions of the children and making reparation, and on a greater scale about a splintered, corrupt and fractured society in desperate need of some humanity. My eyes welled up frequently as I read Alan Paton's beautiful portrayal of two men on opposite sides of the divide struggling to make sense of what was happening around them, and both with bucketfuls of compassion for each other.
And if you haven't read Cry, the Beloved Country yet and decide you might, I wonder if like me you will find Kumalo's lone mountain vigil at dawn, at the exact moment his son is due to be executed, among the most moving of scenes you may ever have read
As Kumalo tries to imagine what his son may be thinking and doing he sets out his meal which Alan Paton then invests with a deeply Biblical significance akin to the Last Supper...
'He looked out of his clouded eyes at the faint steady lightening in the east. But he calmed himself, and took out the heavy maize cakes and the tea and put them on a stone. And he gave thanks, and broke the cakes and ate them, and drank of the tea. Then he gave himself over to deep and earnest prayer....'
Communion as Kumalo's act of faith and to be with his son in spirit in his final hours, but also I sensed something greater, as an act of solidarity with the nation and with the rest of the world. Many have argued that the country of South Africa is one of the most important characters in this book, Alan Paton confirms this in his introduction, and I see it too.
There is far more in Cry,The Beloved Country than one read could ever hope to find which is why in the end I made it only my second (I think) 5* book for The Reader, and here are some of my fifty words...
'... The tribe may be broken but never defeated while it has its Kumalos, please please be sure to read this one.'
I'm sure many of you have read it and I'd love to know your thoughts.