Scroguely Works

Scroguely Works: Cry, the beloved country

Cry, the beloved countryCry, the beloved country by Alan Paton, first published 1948, 320 pages, ISBN 978-0743262170 (Schroguely Works is our new feature on books of interest to thinking-minded folk.)

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.”

Alan Paton wrote these words in 1948.


Before Apartheid. Before legalised hate. Before it was too late. It is the most beautiful book ever written. And the people who needed to read it most never did.

“Cry the beloved country” tells the story of an Anglican Minister, Stephen Kumalo, who travels from rural Kwazulu Natal to Johannesburg, the capital of the South African republic. He goes in search of his son, Absolom, who left home to find work in the mines. The rural areas no longer support people. The land is overgrazed. The people starve.

The work is biblical in form, poetic, a psalm. It is loved. There is no evil in these pages. Not in any of the characters you meet. The evil is in the system that constrains the way that people interact. This was before Apartheid, before laws cemented the racism in peoples’ hearts.

“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 a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

You may compare it to “To kill a mockingbird”, by Harper Lee, but it is by far the greater work. “Cuckoo” is a cop-out and the weaker for it. Tom Robinson, the black man accused of rape, didn’t do it and the Ewells, the white family who attempt to railroad him, are despicable. The reader never needs to confront their own racism, merely gloat that they are “liberal”, their morals untouched.

“Cry” offers no such solace. For Absolom murders Arthur Jarvis during a botched robbery. Jarvis is not a villain. He is the epitome of all that is bold and courageous and wonderful in the human spirit. He is a young attorney, in love with his wife and his two young children, and he is the most vocal critic of government racial policy. He is a crusader for justice.

And his murder will bring about a state of emergency; his death becoming the cause of the oppressor he fought against and hurting the very people he represented.

But it is the language of Paton that is so haunting.

“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”

There is so much compassion and redemption in this book. An understanding of the fear of difference, of living, of dying. Absolom is tried. The case is clear. Everyone involved recognises the horror. That Absolom had a life ahead of him, that he never intended for this to happen. But he did do it. He is found guilty and we follow him to his execution where he cries out for his father and the land he will never see again.

From 1935 to 1948 Paton ran the Diepsloot Reform School where he introduced progressive reforms aimed at rehabilitation of the young, black, offenders. It was during this period that he formulated writing “Cry”. In 1948 the National Party came into power on a groundswell of popular (white) sentiment against black liberty. Paton formed the South African Liberal Party in 1953 to fight Apartheid. The National Party struggled to find a way to ban the Liberals and, eventually, did so in the 1960s. Paton himself had his passport seized and became a “listed” person with all the scrutiny that a brutal dictatorship could focus on an internationally famous humanist.

“But the one thing that has power completely is love, because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.”

Paton became a full-time writer after this. His final novel “Ah, but your land is beautiful” was published in 1981. He died in 1988 without seeing the first democratic election that took place in 1994. Sadly, even in 1988, it was not obvious that change was coming.

“Cry” is a great work. Not for what it says, but for the intimacy of the interactions between the characters. Jarvis’ father is a large land-owner near Stephen’s decaying church. The murder brings him closer to the black community living on the fringes of his estate. The murder does not speak to our horror but to our compassion.

Paton recognised the fear. He knew that simply berating the racists without addressing their concerns was short-sighted and risked triggering defensiveness. His books, in their humanity and honesty, achieve so much more. In the last line of “Cry” he acknowledges the immensity of his task.

“But when the dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

9 replies »

  1. It also deserves to be honored because of how difficult and rare it is for an activist to write fiction without descending into polemics.

  2. I haven’t read much African fiction – Achebe mostly being the beginning and end of the list. Looks like I need to add another one to the library.

  3. I’ve read “Cry The Beloved Country,” Gavin, (ask Sam – I’ve read most everything) and I agree with 95% you say here. My only grouse is with your choice to pick on “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As much as “Cry the Beloved Country” showed me that South Africa in all its beauty and horror had much in common with the American South where I grew up, I wish that you had seen in “Mockingbird” what we Southerners saw in it – the depiction of how we were then, later, and still, I fear, now.

    Apartheid as state sanctioned racism was certainly horrific – but it is the socially accepted racism that “Mockingbird” – and “Cry” address that join them as great testaments against such racism – and for the human spirit. “Cry” may or may not be the more poetic book (both have great beauty to me) – but “Mockingbird” shows us how we learn to be the people we are. For me, that equals the power of “Cry”‘s exploration of “good people in bad situations” that makes “Cry” the great book that you so eloquently demonstrate here.

  4. It is a beautiful book, though I agree with Jim that Mockingbird spoke to Americans at the time more radically than it may now appear. You’re right, Gavin, to point out the tinge of self-righteousness in Lee. And Paton is certainly different, no doubt setting just the right tone of poetic idealism and universal inclusion, but he also hints at an acceptance of fate due precisely to the “immensity of his task,” as you put it.

    The imagination seems often to cut to the bone in a way discursive analysis cannot, clearly so in South Africa, with writers like Athol Fugard and J.M. Coetzee. Have you read the excerpt from Coetzee’s forthcoming novel, Diary of a Bad Year, in the NY Review? Extraordinary, almost like political blog posts interspersed with moving fictional episodes.

  5. Mockingbird is, of course, a “foreign” book for me where Cry is local 😉

    That isn’t the point I was making. Although it is important to recognise that a great work of literature must speak across cultures and periods. Both books are relatively gentle. Consider Clockwork Orange (another potential candidate for this column). The protagonist is evil. We experience hideous crimes with him. Yet we are, when he is involuntarily chemically castrated, asked to consider the immense injustice committed to him.

    The crime is not that a just man has been accused unjustly, whatever his race. The crime is that an unjust system treats everyone unjustly. We should feel that injustice irrespective of who is caught in it. Or why.

    To me, whatever local sentiments it may align with, Mockingbird causes us to care more deeply about Robinson because he is innocent. We should be outraged even if he did it because he never got a fair trial. The decision was made in advance.

    With Absolom there is no doubt. He did do it. He murdered a just man. That doesn’t make Absolom’s experiences, and those of the black people around him, any less injust.

    I can relate to a crusading attorney who chooses to defend the guilty to the best of his ability, not because he believes in their innocense, but to ensure that the system itself remains healthy.

    Paton’s ability is in making an ordinary villain, Absolom, part of something that is tragic and haunting and lingers. To care deeply about a single good person who suffers a terrible injustice is one thing. To care deeply about a person who has done nothing to demonstrate that they believe they deserve any is another.

  6. In about 1985, my father Jonathan Paton, who was the son of Alan Paton, made me a written offer to give me all his wordly possesions if there was not a democratic government by the year 2000, such was his confidence and optimism about the inevitable victory of democratic forces. Jonathan Paton died in 2006, but not before he had had three opportunities to vote in free and fair elections. It is true that Alan Paton died before the release of Mandela and subsequent democratic process, but he and thousands of other liberal and democratic activists who died in that decade left this life in the confidence that their life struggles would not be in vain.

  7. Anthony, thank you so much for your comments. I’ll quote Churchill who said that never has so much been owed by so many to so few.

    As with your grandfather, and so many others, I wish I had the opportunity to meet them and say thank you, not just for what they did, but for inspiring me to do it to.

    And I thank you too.

  8. Hi Whythawk

    We were born into the politics of our day, and many people do what they have to and many more avoid doing what they could. My parents met Mandela a few years ago and I have the photo, but as sometimes happens the younger man died first. But he spoke about how my grandfather had spoken in defence at a trial which was really based on a whole set of bogus premises, so could never be won. I would like to meet Mandela, but so would millions of others and he really deserves a break. In this country, you meet heroic people every day. The struggle for democracy was won, but now we still struggle against poverty, unemployment, aids, crime…it’s never ending. But it’s also one of the most beautiful places in the world…and as Ghandi said “Be the change you want to see…”