Sunday, November 8, 2009

Just Finished: Cry, The Beloved Country

When we were in Birmingham this summer, I tracked down an old bookstore. It wasn't that great, but I did pick up a copy of Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. It's one of those books on a lot of lists but since it's about Africa I had avoided it (please don't write me mean letters). My copy was published in 1950 and has that nice old book smell.

I started reading it a few weeks ago and from the beginning was not thrilled. There are a lot of short sentences, and I'm not the biggest fan of short sentences. The story wasn't gripping me either, but I kept chugging through. About 2/3 through it just gripped me. The whole narrative takes place in South Africa and begins with a rural Zulu parson who finds out that his son has come into some trouble in Johannesburg. He goes to the big city in search of his son as well as his brother and sister who have all ceased communicating with him since they left. What he finds in the city is mostly heartbreak with chinks of hope--the black people are repressed, living in cramped housing, turning to crime, etc and his family is no different. The more he learns about his son, the more he feels that he is actually the failure. There is constantly the tension of what is and what could be or could have been. Here's one of the most heartbreaking passages from the book concerning the parson's son:
And again the tears in the eyes. Who knows if he weeps for the girl he has deserted? Who knows if he weeps for a promise broken? Who knows if he weeps for another self, that would work for a woman, pay his taxes, save his money, keep the laws, love his children, another self that has always been defeated? Or does he weep for himself alone, to be let be, to be let alone, to be free of the merciless rain of questions, why , why, why, when he knows not why. They do not speak with him, they do not jest with him, they do not sit and let him be, but they ask, ask, ask, why, why, why...

But when the parson returns home, partly successful yet still with a heavy heart, the author starts to show us that there is hope and redemption even in the despair of failure; that even in a society wrecked by racism and corruption that a seed can be planted and that change can happen in both the young and the old. It's vague, but I think you should read it and fill in the gaps yourself. You'll be motivated to justice.

No comments: