Paton, Alan 1903–
Paton is a South African novelist and poet. A humanist and a moralist, he writes lyric novels that attack the racial situation in South Africa. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
The emotional impact of Cry, the Beloved Country is achieved, first of all and most consistently, by Paton's stylistic understatement, by his use and reuse of a few simple, almost stilted, formal phrases. Is it heavy? Jarvis asks Stephen Kumalo when the latter haltingly and painfully reveals his identity as the father of the murderer of Jarvis' son. Kumalo's reply echoes and reechoes the adjective: It is very heavy, umnumzana. It is the heaviest thing of all my years … This thing that is the heaviest thing of all my years, is the heaviest thing of all your years also…. Similarly Mrs. Lithebe, whenever she is praised for her great generosity, repeatedly responds with a question that becomes something of a litany: Why else were we born?
In their stark simplicity, these and other phrases often suggest the biblical. Like the scripture readings … and the errant son's name (Absalom), they sometimes even echo the Bible directly…. Such phrases are so effective because their very understatement heightens the impact of what is clearly implied. They achieve yet greater power because they appear at climactic moments,… and they are repeated periodically. Thus their effect also resembles that of the incremental repetition of folk ballads.
Paton's selection of episodes and his narration and descriptions follow a similar stylistic manner. In these, too, understatement and repetition predominate, thus contributing to the desired effect. Almost conspicuously Paton eschews depicting—instead he merely alludes to or presents in the form of newspaper accounts—externally dramatic situations. This is true not only of the most consequential event of the novel—the murder itself—but also of such inherently dramatic situations as the abortive miners' strike or the confrontations between the novel's four sets of fathers and sons…. (pp. 262-63)
Instead of depicting violent scenes, Paton interweaves into the narrative events seemingly tangential to the main story line. These events are made interesting in themselves as history, but they are also made immediately pertinent to and revealing of the novel's action and characters. (p. 263)
Much of the story is seen through the eyes of an omniscient author whose tone ranges from reportorial objectivity to editorial evangelism. Parts of the story, however, are...
(The entire section is 985 words.)
Knocking on the Door is a collection of short pieces written between 1923 and 1974 and hitherto unpublished or otherwise inaccessible. The chronological arrangement provides insight into the growth of Paton's moral vision, and the book is less valuable for the "creative" pieces, which are of minor importance in his canon, than for the articles and speeches, which are vital to an understanding of the tensions and contradictions which burden the life of South Africa and which provide much of the power of its best fiction. One piece, "Why I Write" (1974), is of great importance, not only as an expression of Paton's own artistic motives but as an expression of his sensitivity to the Afrikaners, who consider themselves Africans. It is a fact that anthologies or surveys of African literature almost never include works by white South Africans, who are apparently presumed to be European sojourners in a black continent. Paton provides a corrective: "When we talk of 'home' we mean the country in which [we] were born, which commands our affections, and excites our desire to write of what we know and understand." Paton knows that the real South African drama is in the souls of the whites, where fear must contend with love and justice; and a number of these pieces are designed to save that literary subject from those who seek simpler solutions in racial, political or economic theories.
Paton recognizes the conflict in himself between "the desire to write and the desire to do." As a writer he has resembled his Mr. Thomson in the story "The Hero of Currie Road" (1972), who argues that Mau Mau violence is no better than white violence and returns to his typewriter when he is booed by an audience of (black) Africans. As a man of action he spoke in 1968 on behalf of "the right to live under the rule of law"—scarcely a popular position with those who pervert words to justify violence; and his "Memorial to Luthuli" (1972) is an eloquent defense of "knocking on the door"—the act of either the artist or the political leader who demands admission to the hall of justice. (p. 492)
Robert L. Berner, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977.