Alan Paton World Literature Analysis
Paton accurately labeled his works “a compound of truth and fiction,” for these fictional treatments of South African realities are firmly based in Paton’s own experiences as a youth growing up in Natal and working in Johannesburg, a city of which the omniscient narrator of Cry, the Beloved Country says, “No second Johannesburg is needed upon the earth. One is enough.” The changes wrought by the discovery of gold at Odendaalsrust; the miners’ strike for better treatment, higher wages, and the right to be near their families; increased rates of prostitution, crime, and violence; the benign policies of the Diepkloop Reformatory; the legal consequences of the “Immorality Act” on interracial affairs; and Afrikaner fear of an overpowering black majority—these are historical threads of truth worked into the fabric of Paton’s fictional depiction of the personal consequences of such events and patterns. Tales from a Troubled Land captures the pain of being “colored,” accepted by neither whites nor blacks, while “A Drink in a Passage” explores a favorite Paton theme: racial opposites crossing social barriers to make tentative, fleeting personal contact.
Paton’s unique, modern style blends Western and African patterns and themes. It builds on strategies and concerns from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—fragmented voices, interwoven symbolic images, a vague sense of futility and loss, the disruption of natural harmony, progression toward decay, pollution, and erosion, communication breakdowns, alienation, dying children, and hollow men. South African critics find the characters’ speech an English re-creation of Zulu sounds and syntax, pointing to techniques others have labeled “biblical” or “Greek”; they note an economy of diction, a heavy reliance on repetition and parallelism, a formality and stateliness that lend weight and dignity to simple words, a preference for proverbs and aphorisms, and a use of metaphors connecting humankind, earth, and plants. The description of Msimangu’s speech typifies this “biblical” or “Zulu” pattern, with its repetition of “voice . . . of gold,” its image of a voice like “a deep hollow bell”: “it was the voice of a man whose heart was golden, reading from a book of golden words.” The words capture a mystical sense of rural wisdom and traditional oral storytelling. Too Late the Phalarope (1953) echoes the motifs and patterns of Greek tragedy as it depicts the inner struggle of a divided soul—war hero, soccer star, police lieutenant, and father, but also sexually driven breaker of social and legal taboos, tragically destroyed by pride and passion.
When Paton describes the land past or future, his voice rings lyrical and mellifluous. A dramatic quality infuses his language and plots. Paton’s style changes to fit voice; short, sharp alternating lines of stichomythia heighten dramatic tension and capture contrasting perspectives. His dramatic vignettes turn on the complexity and irrationality of behavior and motive—for example, Gertrude, a prostitute and would-be nun.
Thematically, Paton explores words and acts that divide fathers and sons, and failed reconciliations. For example, Stephen Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country loses his beloved son to the city and cannot comprehend his deeds. James Jarvis, in the same book, fails to take his son seriously until death separates them but resolves that contact with his grandson will be closer. Jacob van Vlaanderen’s harsh punishment of young Pieter for his failure to achieve scholastic superiority in Too Late the Phalarope leads to permanent estrangement. The black father in “The Waste Land” finds himself forced, in self-defense, to kill one of three young robbers who pursue him through a junkyard; the youth proves to be the man’s own son.
Contemptuous of authoritarianism and compelled by a deep-seated love of freedom, Paton studies crime and punishment, justice and law in novels featuring trials. The accused in Cry, the Beloved Country, a product of bad laws that speed the disintegration of tribal values, deserves punishment, although perhaps not to the degree awarded. The accused in Too Late the Phalarope, however, is victimized by the fear, ignorance, jealousy, and righteous indignation of his fellow citizens. Other concerns raised in Paton’s books are the devastating effects of the migration of rural populations to urban industrial wastelands, the inhuman plight of squatters and shantytown dwellers, and the Afrikaner’s obsession with racial purity. Paton captures and holds the imagination by delving into the secret heart of humanity and infusing personal desolation with a sense of hope despite obstacles.
Paton’s depiction of Napoleon Letsitsi, an agricultural demonstrator, typifies this balance of faith and despair. The young man is the answer to Stephen Kumalo’s prayers for renewed values and restoration of a lost past. Letsitsi transforms the land step by step but understands the practical difficulties of the ruined soil, the sullen, silent villagers myopically centered on immediate personal advantage, and unchecked population growth that could undo all progress. He is one of Africa’s new men, educated, and employed by whites, but looking to an Africa in which black Africans also have a say in what will happen to them and their land. Paton lets him have the final words of Cry, the Beloved Country, words of hope but also of the need for responsibility.
Cry, the Beloved Country
First published: 1948
Type of work: Novel...
(The entire section is 2334 words.)