Five Books to Understand the Modern World Part Two: ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’

“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating”: Alan Paton as South African prophet.

This is the second post in the series Five Books to Understand the Modern World. For the first installment on ‘Lord of the Flies’ go here.

It’s probably not fashionable any more to be a fan of ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. It does not call for revolution. It is primarily spiritual, rather than political. It is written by a white man.

Yet – no other book I have ever read captures so accurately the agony of South Africa and the stubborn sense of hope symbolised by our land’s beauty, and thus remains almost prophetically relevant to every passing year of our country’s fairly morbid story.

I would go so far as to say this book should be compulsory reading for every school-going child in the country. And therefore it heartily deserves its spot in my top five list of books you need to read to get a grip on what is going on all around us.

The novel famously begins with a description of “a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills”, hills which are “grass-covered and rolling, and… lovely beyond any singing of it.”

But the perspective of the novel lowers toward the valleys:

“But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men… The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more.”

And then the novel cuts to the desolate life of country priest, Stephen Kumalo, at his parish of Ndotsheni. His family, except his wife, have all left for Johannesburg, in search of jobs or a new life. He hears nothing from his sister, or his son, Absalom.

Urbanisation and the migrant labour system imposed by the mines has shattered traditional society.

As Stephen muses throughout the novel: “…the tribe was broken, and the house broken, and the man broken.”

Stephen receives a letter from a fellow priest in Sophiatown telling him that his sister is ill and requires help. When he reaches Johannesburg, he discovers the truth – she has become a prostitute. Resolving to bring her home, Stephen begins the search for his son, and equally seeks to meet with his lost brother, John.

The fellow priest’s name is Theophilus Msimangu, and he becomes Stephen’s guide through a city in which nowhere can one find the peace of God. As they journey through the chaos of a city beginning to fill with crime and poverty, Msimangu notes, “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.”

John has become both a successful businessman and a burgeoning political leader, although he does not quite have the courage to truly revolt against a system of segregation in which he correctly notes that white South Africa is happy to use the labour of the black man within the urban areas, but not to share the profits of the gold or to allow him freedom within those urban areas. He also disdains Stephen’s life as a churchman, with its subservience to a bishop and a local chief, who cannot understand this new urban world.

Msimangu disdains John, as he sees the lust for power beneath his political posturing, but he notes to Stephen that he is right about many things. And if John represents the future, what is to become of the country? In a power struggle, everybody will be corrupted – unless the white man can put aside his fear of the black man in time.

Famously, he says, “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating… But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.”

Soon enough, Stephen discovers that his missing son has been involved in a murder, a murder of a white man campaigning for the rights of blacks to an education and decent housing and hospitals. What’s worse, this white man is from a farm that neighbours Kumalo’s village of Ndotsheni. The two fathers meet and know each other – and they begin a journey together of discovering who their sons truly were.

The white man, Jarvis, must come to grips with his son’s liberalism, despite his conventional ‘non-political’ upbringing, with all its comfort with segregation. The black man, Kumalo, must come to terms with how his son has gone from a parson’s child in a traditional village to a robber and killer in the city.

And, of course, they must grapple with each other’s existence.

Suffice to say, the novel is filled with the pain of this country: “Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone… Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.”

These things are still not yet at end; we still live with them today. The corruption of power; the lack of any custom which naturally breeds an accepted and communal moral code; the breakdown of families; the rise of crime.

But at the same time, the story is about ‘comfort in desolation’ – the mystery of how pain can lead to reconciliation; the mystery of how in the greatest darkness, a light always shines.

In short, you just have to read it. If you do, you will come away with a nuanced and humble understanding of our country – a desperately needed tonic in our age of political sloganeering and division.

To conclude, I’d like to highlight just a few of the literary traditions Paton uses to tell his story.

First of all, Paton has undoubtedly used that master-story of Christ – the tale of the Prodigal Son – as his chief inspiration. Kumalo’s son has given up his family to go to a strange land to live prodigally. The sad irony is after engaging in some petty crime, he had begun to reform his life, and had sought to marry the mother of his soon-to-be-born child. Yet his cousin had involved him in a house burglary which would have tragic consequences.

The rest of the novel does not follow the simple conclusion of the parable. Kumalo’s son, Absalom, must be executed for his crime. Yet, at the same time, his father does welcome him back into the family, by taking his son’s family in to his own, by forgiving his son, and by reaching out to the murdered victim’s father, in a kind of partnership to rebuild Ndotsheni, and thus redeem the deaths of both their sons.

This is not the only biblical allusion. Stephen is named for Christianity’s first martyr, St Stephen, and he must suffer too as he discovers the true nature of his country. His son, Absalom, is named for the son of King David. David’s family had endured a kind of curse after he took another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and it had been foretold that the sword would never depart from his house – and so his son Absalom seeks to overthrow his kingship – just as Absalom Kumalo overthrows his father’s way of life.

And finally, Stephen’s guide and friend is named Theophilus, to whom St Luke addressed his gospel in the New Testament, and Theophilus means ‘friend of God’, just as Theophilus Msimangu portrays the spiritual resources, the gospel of forgiveness, which Paton posits as the only true solution to the violence of South Africa. Indeed, forgiveness is perhaps the most important idea of the novel – and when last was that virtue proclaimed in our country?

Secondly, Paton has also borrowed something from the storytelling mechanism of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Comedy, the great Roman poet Virgil is sent from the afterlife to guide Dante through the underworld of Hell, and up the mountain of Purgatory, towards the Paradise of the heavens, so he can find redemption.

In the novel, Stephen can only find redemption for his family and village by answering the summons of his own Virgil, Theophilus Msimangu, who must guide him through the hell of Johannesburg, so he can ascend once again the green hills of Ndotsheni, in hope that a new dawn will come for his own people, one day.

Thirdly, whilst probably not consciously, there is very much a kind of nod toward the ethics and politics of Aristotle here. Aristotle, in contrast to modern philosophers, believed that all human life had a telos, or an end – that there was a proper way of living. To be inducted into this proper way of life required a political order built on the household, the local community, and finally the polis, or state. In Paton’s South Africa, the political and economic order has ripped the household, the community, and the state into a kind of chaos. The novel keeps repeating: the tribe is broken, the house is broken, the man is broken.

It is not accurate to blame Absalom alone for the murder. One does not just arrive at the point of pulling a trigger by pure individual choice. Nor does one arrive at success and morality by pure individual choice. We are political animals, as Aristotle taught. Chaos within always reflects chaos without. There will always be evil human beings, of course, and, yes, we have to be accountable for own actions, no matter what influences us. But at the same time, some societies naturally breed crime because of a lack of public order and peace.

And this is the difficult lesson South Africa still has to learn: we cannot hope to have a prosperous nation without communities of order and peace. But at the same time, it is very difficult to form good communities in a climate of chaos and corruption. We cannot simply blame individuals for our problems; nor can we solve our bigger problems without healthy individuals. In short, we require the grace that comes upon both Kumalo and Jarvis – something outside the circle – God’s deep magic, to borrow a CS Lewis term.

Until that comes, however, all we can do is ascend the mountain, as Kumalo does at the end of the novel, to mark the moment of his son’s execution, in hope of a dawn to come – “but when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

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