Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful

by Alan Paton

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Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352

Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, like the earlier works of Alan Paton, reveals the author’s great love for his native land and its people. He writes of a grand part of the world, a country of which visitors say, “Ah, but your land is beautiful.” For Paton, however, the well-meant praise for South Africa, especially Natal, where the novelist resides, has a fearsome irony: while the land is undeniably beautiful, the lives its people lead are full of prejudice, of stress, of fear, and even of terror. Each individual, regardless of race, has to learn how to live within the stringent regulations of apartheid. Each person has to decide whether to accept the policies of segregation or to strive to change them. Conflicts arise and not only between groups of people—the whites, the blacks, the Indians, and those of mixed race known in South Africa as “Coloured.” Conflicts grow among the members of each group, too. Further, conflicts arise within the individual and must be mastered, lest they destroy the person in whom they occur.

Paton has divided his novel into six chronological sections. The first section deals with the Defiance Campaign which arose in 1952. In part, it is the story of Prem Bodasingh, an eighteen-year-old Indian girl who insists on defying the rules that forbid her to use the Durban Municipal Reference Library because she is not white. Again and again, quietly but firmly, she enters the library, to be arrested, to be imprisoned, to risk having her chances for an education ended. She does this to demonstrate the injustice of a rule which prevents her, an outstanding student in her secondary school, from using the library’s resources. The novelist uses her as a striking example of how people in South Africa tried to change the policies of the government. Her efforts were, at the time, seemingly without success. During the Defiance Campaign, rioting occurred, people were killed, and hundreds more suffered injuries. The government, in answer to the situation, stiffened the punishments for lawbreaking with intent to protest apartheid. Africans and Indians cooperated in the campaign, but the leaders had to call off the efforts because of the harm coming to their own people and the whites who helped them.

The second portion of the novel relates how people who worked for the government found themselves caught, as it were, in a cleft stick. The ruling Nationalist Party and its regulations placed them in conflict with the government if they did not share the Afrikaner views. To illustrate the problems of these people, Paton relates the difficulties facing the white, English-speaking headmaster of a school for whites, who wishes to have his students compete with students from a nonwhite school in athletics and debate. Paton also shows the difficulties of the black headmaster of a school for blacks. The two administrators only wish to help their students, but to do so becomes impossible for them; the political conditions interfere with the goals of education. Given both courage and an independent income, a person can leave teaching and enter politics to fight as a leader of the Liberal Party, as the white headmaster, Robert Mansfield, does. Without resources, the black headmaster can only try to survive professionally until retirement.

The division between whites and blacks is not the only line of tension in South Africa. Paton shows vividly how the events of history have pitted the white descendants of Dutch settlers against the people of English-speaking ancestry. In part, this conflict is rooted in the defeat of the Afrikaners in the Boer War of almost a century ago. The Afrikaners came to have political power once again and have remembered bitterly how they were “outside” for many years. The conflict between Afrikaner and Britisher has its roots in religion as well. For the Afrikaner, the policies of apartheid have the blessing of his church, as he and his coreligionists interpret the Bible. For them, the separation of the races is a mandate from heaven which must be honored. Opposing the Afrikaner view is the more democratic, nonracist attitude of the Anglican Church, to which most of the English-speaking white people adhere. The Anglican leaders of the 1950’s openly, even rigorously, opposed the concept of apartheid and its consequences. Finally, Afrikaners are divided from their English-speaking countrymen by their language itself, an offshoot of Dutch.

These diverse racial and ethnic tensions are given focus in the lives of Paton’s characters, most vividly in the fate of Dr. Jan Woltemade Fischer, an Afrikaner leader held in high esteem by his fellows. He is a public figure, a bureaucrat, and a church leader, a man high in the Justice Department, where he helps make and enforce the policies and practices of apartheid. He is acclaimed by political leaders, by theologians, and by university leaders. Unfortunately, he is attracted to a Zulu girl, the daughter of a black policeman. The white man importunes the girl again and again, until she agrees to meet him under cover of darkness in a public park. In the park, the man falls victim to his own beliefs. Caught in an “immoral act” with a woman of another race, he is tried for violation of the Immorality Acts. Found guilty at his trial, he is sentenced to death, on the basis that an offense against the Immorality Acts is treason against his nation. Unable to face life, even until an official execution, Dr. Fischer commits suicide.

Violence was part of life in South Africa in the 1950’s. Paton writes, for example, of a nun, a medical doctor who devoted her life to helping sick black people. The doctor encounters an angry black mob and is killed by the rioters, who also burn her body and car. When the flames die down, members of the mob cut off pieces of her flesh and eat it. Whites, too, turned to violence, and Paton describes violent acts directed against other whites who disagree with apartheid, as well as against blacks and Indians.

The final section of the novel is entitled “Into the Golden Age.” The title is in reference to a new political era, with a new prime minister of South Africa to lead the nation into a promised land, as viewed by Afrikaner Nationalists. The new leader sees a wonderful era for the sections of the country set aside for the various racial groups. While the Afrikaners see this partitioning and segregation as proper for a nation, the liberals of all races and religions disagree.

Part of the fascination of this novel is Paton’s narrative method. While dialogue has a large part in that method, his most striking and successful device—particularly effective in revealing character—is his use of letters, which are juxtaposed with the narrative proper. There is an unforgettable series of poison-pen letters written by an Afrikaner woman who signs her venomous epistles as a “Proud White Christian Woman.” Also memorable is a parallel series of letters sent in the name of The Preservation of White South Africa League. The latter, as it turns out, are the work of a German Nazi who took refuge in South Africa after World War II. More subtle, and wonderful in their revelation of character, is a series of long letters written by Gabriel Van Onselen, an official in the Justice Department, to an aunt who lives on a farm in rural Natal. He is the voice of the Afrikaner movement in both politics and religion; he, too, shares the troubled mind of the other characters. He knows, though he tries to deny it, what a troubled land it is in which he dwells.

Through the persons who speak within his pages, both the real personages and the fictional characters, Alan Paton gives the reader an insight into what it is like to live in an officially divided society. Paton has been perhaps the best-known twentieth century interpreter of life in South Africa for readers in America. Although he despises the yoke of apartheid, Paton persuades his readers that he tells the truth about all South Africans.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

The Atlantic. CCXLIX, April, 1982, p. 110.

Commonweal. CIX, May 21, 1982, p. 310.

Christian Science Monitor. March 12, 1982, p. B1.

Library Journal. CVII, March 15, 1982, p. 651.

The New Republic. CLXXXVI, March 24, 1982, p. 35.

New Statesman. CII, November 27, 1981, p. 22.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 18, 1982, p. 7.

Newsweek. XCIX, March 15, 1982, p. 73.

Saturday Review. IX, April, 1982, p. 59.

Times Literary Supplement. November 20, 1981.

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