Book Review: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Having just finished Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, I shall attempt my first review of fiction.  Actually, "meanderings" may be a better word than "review." 

Cry, the Beloved Country is the story Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from a small village in South Africa who spends all his savings to track down his prodigal son in Johannesburg.  It's a beautifully written story of humanity, suffering, and hope.

I love that Paton's writings are from a world (literally) different from my own. It's not simply the geography of strange land or even different language (he preserves much Zulu) or even lives full of trials so foreign from my own that are captivating.  It's that the rhythm and cadence of the book are entirely different than my own experience and anything I've read.  It has a different feel to it. I think other people have used the word "lyrical" to describe the book and I would agree. 

Even though the world and language and suffering are alien to me, the book is still compelling because the complexities of the human soul are not.  Paton beautifully captures the turmoil of humanity, the tension between the evil without and the evil within. As Kumalo plods through the nearly ubiquitous injustice in South Africa  (racism, prostitution, corrupt politics, etc.) and reach of sin into his own family, it is often his own soul that plagues him most.  His temper.  His deception.  His lack of faith. Where many books attempt to be "real" they end up with characters that are somehow subhuman.  But Paton's characters and dialogues do not suffer from this.  In fact, it is his exposition of human suffering that is the most real and one of the reasons I find the book so beautiful. In the book, Stephen Kumalo's life becomes eternally intertwined with white man James Jarvis, who is mourning the loss of his murdered son, Arthur. One of the most moving moments in the book is when Jarvis reads the last writings of his son. Arthur (whom we never meet in the book) was an activist for reconciliation between black and white South Africa and wrote passionately for the cause. Only minutes before his untimely murder Arthur penned some of my favorite words, "I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right...I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. (198)." The scene sums up the weightiness of the whole book. Jarvis, who had more or less ignores his son's activism seems to realize that when his son was murdered more than a man died. Hope died.  

Yes, God save Africa, the beloved country. God save us from the deep depths of our sins. God save us from the fear that is afraid of justice. God save us from the fear that is afraid of men. God save us all
— Cry, The Beloved Country, p. 249.

But true hope cannot die. New hopes are born even in suffering. This hopefulness is what makes the book so beautiful.  It is not a naive hopefulness but a hope shaped deeply by understanding the world and the cross. Near the end of the book one of Kumalo's friends says to him (another of my favorite lines), "I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering, umfundisi [Zulu for priest]. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering (p. 251)."  

I read Cry, the Beloved Country on my wife's recommendation because it is one of her favorites.  I'm glad she made me read it.