Harold C. Gardiner (essay date 13 March 1948)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "On Saying 'Boo!' to Geese," in his In All Conscience: Reflections on Books and Culture, Hanover House, 1959, pp. 108-12.

[In the following essay, first printed in 1948 in America magazine, Gardiner commends Paton's artistic treatment of racial tensions in Cry, the Beloved Country, especially in comparison to contemporary trends in fiction.]

At the risk, perhaps, of sounding like a proper Bostonian, I want to raise a standard to which I think all critics ought to be willing and eager to repair. I'd like to start a movement or found an organization for the Cessation of Adulation Heaped on Authors (generally Young Authors) Because They Write in a Bizarre, Shocking, Grotesque, and Violent Style of Bizarre, Shocking, Grotesque, and Violent Things. Will my fellow critics, of both the secular and the religious press, care to come in?

If they do join, they will find themselves in good company. They will meet, for example, Mr. Edwin Waugh remarking: "Exaggeration, violence, and vulgarity are [literature's] deadliest banes; reticence, modesty, and shy beauty are its infallible qualities." Or they will hear more famous S. H. Butcher, in his Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and the Fine Arts, proclaiming: "The esthetic pleasure produced by any ideal imitation must be a sane and wholesome pleasure, which would approve itself to the better portion of the community." Or even still better-known Arnold Bennett would tell them (in his Literary Taste): "The pleasure derived from a classic is never a violent pleasure; it is subtle—it will wax in intensity…. The artistic pleasures of an uncultivated mind are generally violent…. The pleasure of a classic does not at all knock you down—rather, it steals over you."

These are but three of a veritable chorus of critics who have affirmed, down through the history of our literature, that it is the common, universal human values, and not the shock techniques, which have been the touchstone of excellence. The persistence of this critical tradition is not invalidated by the undoubted fact that there are recognized masterpieces of macabre writing—Edgar Allan Poe's, for instance—but I doubt that anyone would deny that such work is automatically relegated to a lesser sphere of literary blessedness, perhaps almost to a limbo of letters.

And it is equally true that there are classics with violent and even distasteful themes—we have some of the great Russians and an Oedipus. But it will be found, I think, that these apparent exceptions but prove the rule; they are not violent for the sake of the violence, for beneath their fury and their immediate repulsion lies the common and universal human struggle, the all-pervading and supporting atmosphere of human morality.

However far afield a consideration of other literatures might lead us, I think it is demonstrably evident that in very much current American fiction the frenzied striving for the unusual, the shocking, the grotesque is dehumanizing the writing, stultifying the authors, and, it is to be feared, debauching the reader. And the evil, far from being checked, is not even noted by critics who award to neurotic exhibitionism the accolade of "genius" or "virtuosity."

This mild animadversion is prompted because I have just finished a magnificent story. Its subject matter is as explosive as any that can be handled in today's fiction—the tensions between Negroes and whites—and yet there is not the faintest whisper of shrill propaganda; it deals plainly with the lusts of the flesh, and yet there is not the slightest suggestiveness; it plumbs deep into human suffering and punishment without a hint of moralizing or of maudlin sentimentality. It is a...

(This entire section contains 1403 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

fine, indeed a great book.

It is Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton. The scene is South Africa, the main character a magnificently conceived native Anglican minister, the theme a twofold one: the struggle of the natives, attracted from the land and their tribes to the huge mining towns like Johannesburg, for tolerable living and working conditions; and the decline of tribal life and customs, fostered by the white man who had nothing to give the natives in return. All this is superbly told in a rather stately style, which is presumably a fairly literal transcription of the Zulu idiom and which gives the poignant tale a somewhat Biblically patriarchal tone.

Kumalo, the hero, is summoned from his little church among his tribe to go down to the frightening big city to help his sister, who has fallen on evil ways, and to find his son, from whom his parents have not heard since he left to work in the mines. The boy runs away from a reform school and becomes involved in a killing, the victim being the son of the white farmer whose lands lie near Kumalo's church; the son himself had sacrificed a career of great promise to work for the betterment of the natives. The pastor's sister agrees to return home with him but runs off at the last minute, leaving the crushed and, he thinks, disgraced man to go back to his tribe with his sister's child and the pregnant young wife of his condemned son. Drought and poor farming are threatening the life of his tribe when no one else steps in to assist them but the father of the murdered son, who does it in remembrance of his own son's devotion to the natives.

But the story is pre-eminently one of individuals. There are no sweeping and grandiose statements about "the race problem." Jarvis, the white father, and Kumalo, the black one, are two men sorrowing for their sons, and the reader soon realizes that it matters not a tinker's dam what the color of their respective skins is. It is the human (and divine) values by which the two men live, the human dignity both portray, the sublimation of human suffering they achieve, which puts the black man and the white man shoulder to shoulder in the book and suggests by implication that the black and the white populations of South Africa and indeed of all the world can work shoulder to shoulder as well, if only every person will stop looking at the "race question" and start looking at the individual soul. This thought the book presents superbly. Though its very theme is race tension, in the inner workings and motivation of the characters the book shows utter unconsciousness of "race."

I wish there were space to quote many of the deeply moving passages of this most truly compassionate book. There is the scene in which Kumalo tells Jarvis that it was his son who had killed the white man's, or the scene in which Kumalo says farewell to his son, awaiting execution, or that which depicts the old pastor, back with his parish, leading prayers for his condemned son. But as I want to draw the comparison suggested at the start of this discussion, I must leave you to read these for yourself. I must remark, in passing from this truly noble novel, that there is one defect in it. It is marred by a page or so of some very shallow remarks on what law is and whence it derives its authority….

The loud and the startling things are not always the significant things in life; they are rarely the important things in a novel. Cry, the Beloved Country is an Everest in the flat wastes of modern fiction precisely because it is not shrill about the riots, the broken heads, the sullen hatreds of race tensions, but rather delves deeply into the serenity of love, compassion, consideration, and devotion that can alone solve race tensions.

The literature of exaggeration may be inescapable today. We live in an age of exaggeration—millions of slave laborers in Russia, sky-blanketing fleets of war planes, supersonic flight. Who knows when we will return to the human level again and leave the apocalyptic? Literature can, I think, help in its relatively small way to lead us back, but it will first have to rediscover the truth about life as well as about itself—the truth that "the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire: the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air."

And the Lord—of literature as of life—was and is in the gentle air.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Alan Paton 1903–1988

South African novelist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, autobiographer, biographer, dramatist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry presents criticism of Paton's work through 1989. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 10, 25, and 55.

One of the earliest proponents of racial equality in his native South Africa, Paton made considerable practical contributions to political life there. His place in the literature of social protest rests primarily on the novels Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and Too Late the Phalarope (1953), both of which made him South Africa's most celebrated writer. In both his fiction and political writings Paton confronted the horrors of South African apartheid. His works have been admired particularly for their perceptive and sympathetic treatment of the exploitation of nonwhites by the elite ruling class and its tragic effects on both the exploited and South African society as a whole. John Romano has observed that Paton's "steady devotion to the ideal of the empathetic imagination in fiction … is an example of Paton's characteristic method. Individual human dilemmas are never swallowed up or diminished by the overarching political context of the story he is telling. Paton is relentless in his faith in the moral meaning of individual human experience."

Biographical Information

Born January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, Paton attended Maritzburg College and Natal University College, where he prepared for a career in teaching and began writing dramas and poetry, much of the latter comprising the collection Songs of Africa (1995). After graduating in 1922 with a B.S. degree and teacher's certificate, he returned to teach at Maritzburg College until 1935, when he was appointed principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for young African delinquents by Jan Hofmeyer, Paton's hero and subject of the biography Hofmeyr (1964). Within weeks he had changed the administration's principles from force, rebellion, and disorder to respect, trust, and internal commitment, which prompted him to write Freedom as a Reformatory Instrument (1948). Versions of the troubled youths appear in some of Paton's stories and in his play Sponono (1965). While touring prisons and reformatories in Europe and the United States in 1947, Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, which brought him fame, financial security, and the Anisfield-Wolf Award for 1948. However, the novel was published in the same year that Prime Minister Daniel François Malan came to power and instituted apartheid; consequently Paton resigned from Diepkloof and devoted his life to writing and social action. In the early 1950s he was a founding member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, of which he later became president until the party was outlawed by the government in 1968. His moral commitment to opposing racism increased while working in the Anglican Church with Bishop Geoffrey Clayton, the subject of the biography Apartheid and the Archbishop (1973). After the publication of Too Late the Phalarope, Paton concentrated on completing several nonfiction books about contemporary South African politics and its problems, most notably The Land and People of South Africa (1955). In 1961 he issued the collection of short stories Tales from a Troubled Land, followed by several more nonfiction books. When his wife, Debbie, died in 1967, Paton wrote a tribute to her, For You Departed (1969). His humanitarian and literary efforts garnered Paton the 1960 Freedom House award and the 1977 International League for Human Rights prize, as well as several honorary doctorates from prestigious universities around the world. Paton's last novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), followed the publication of the first installment of his autobiography, Towards the Mountain (1980). Paton died of throat cancer on April 12, 1988, at his home near Durban, just three weeks after he had completed the second part of his autobiography, Journey Continued (1988).

Major Works

The bulk of Paton's writings are nonfiction works about political and social conditions in South Africa, and this theme also appears in much of his fiction, though always as background for his art. Cry, the Beloved Country is an episodic portrayal of racially-divided South Africa concerning the fate of Absalom Kumalo, a young African who, while committing a robbery, murders Arthur Jarvis, a wealthy, white social activist. The novel opens with Kumalo's father, a humble Zulu country pastor, who journeys to Johannesburg to search for his delinquent and missing son. When he finds his son, Steven Kumalo learns that Absalom has confessed to the murder and will be put to death. Meanwhile Arthur Jarvis Sr. reads his dead son's papers and speeches and acquires knowledge of both the hostile, squalid living conditions of most of South Africa's native peoples and his son's ideas about changing the apartheid system. Finally, after Absalom has been executed, both fathers meet and share mutual comprehension of each other's loss. Too Late the Phalarope relates the story of Pieter van Vlaanderen, a promising Afrikaner police lieutenant. When he is discovered violating the South African Immorality Act of 1927 by engaging in sexual intercourse with an African woman, Stephanie, he is imprisoned and shunned by his well-established and conservative family. According to South African social mores at the time, his shame spells the downfall of his family as well. Most of the stories in Tales from a Troubled Land relate sometimes tragic, sometimes comic episodes involving the inmates and staff at the Diepkloof reformatory. Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful recounts in the form of a pastichememoir the Defiance Campaign and the Liberal Party in the 1950s. The narrative comprises letters, reflections, character sketches, bits of dialogue, the transcripts of a trial, a summary of newspaper accounts and scraps of official documents juxtaposed or sewn together by a narrator who seems himself the possessor of a long, patient, irresistible historical vision. The story begins with the arrest of an Indian girl, Prem, for deliberately using a white library in violation of the color bar. When Prem defies the authorities, her struggle ignites the sudden imposition of new, strict apartheid measures and increasingly severe persecution of anti-apartheid forces. The novel concludes with the election to Prime Minister of a character who represents Dr. Henrik Verwoerk, which marks the beginning of the most bitter period in South African history. Towards the Mountain describes Paton's early years as an educator and his conversion from the white racist paternalism up to the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country; Journey Continued picks up from that point and focuses on his involvement with the Liberal Party through 1968, including a brief epilogue on the two decades preceding his death.

Critical Reception

Paton's works generally have received little critical attention despite the widely favorable reviews of his first two novels. Still, Cry, the Beloved Country has continued to attract readers around the world, achieving an almost legendary status. Paton's other works have assumed their niche in the English literary canon as well, but rarely have attracted much commentary. Since the 1980s, however, a number of critical assessments have appeared, focusing on such aspects of Paton's works as the thematic universality of Too Late the Phalarope; environmental, liturgical, and spiritual influences in Paton's art; and the classical, epic, psychological, and religious dimensions of Cry, the Beloved Country. Most critics have tended to agree with Harold C. Gardiner, who has summarized an often-repeated critical commentary on Cry: "Its subject matter is as explosive as any that can be handled in today's fiction—the tensions between Negroes and whites—and yet there is not the faintest whisper of shrill propaganda; it deals plainly with the lusts of the flesh, and yet there is not the slightest suggestiveness; it plumbs deep into human suffering and punishment without a hint of moralizing or of maudlin sentimentality. It is a fine, indeed a great book." Others, however, have objected to the politics, or rather the absence of political responsibility, of Cry. A. A. Moyne has noted that Paton "believes like his chief character, Rev. Kumalo, that love is the solution to the problems of the oppressed blacks. It is doubtful how love would work, when fear rules the lives of both races in South Africa." Nevertheless, William Minter has concluded that Paton "will be remembered not for that fear, but for his cry for justice that continues to echo today."

Harvey Breit (essay date 20 November 1949)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Alan Paton," in his The Writer Observed, World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 89-93.

[In the following essay, originally printed in 1949 in The New York Times Review as regular feature interviews, Breit asks Paton about the differences between South African and American blacks, his career preoccupations, and his literary influences and methods.]

This reporter saw Alan Paton on the eve of his leaving for England to receive a special literary award from The London Times for his distinguished novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. In New York he had seen the "musical tragedy" version of his novel; in London he will put the finishing touches to the screen version of it for Alexander Korda.

About the award Mr. Paton said: "The Times gives a literary prize for the best and most important book of the year. The prize went to Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm. In any year, any book Mr. Churchill writes—especially given the topic on which he was writing—must be the best and most important book of the year." The Times, apparently feeling they'd like to do something for Mr. Paton's novel, created a special prize.

Mr. Paton, in his middle forties, the son of a Presbyterian Scotsman, was born in South Africa, where he grew up and where he did everything (from pedagogy to penology) but write. It was after the war that he got started, and in a faraway country. He held the manuscript for a time after finishing it, it was a private matter, and not for publication. But a friend gave him wise counsel. Now Mr. Paton's life is changed. "I am in a dilemma," he says (pronouncing it digh-lemma). The reader, however, need not concern himself with Mr. Paton's dilemma. Mr. Paton, small and wiry and with a lean and hungry look, is an impressive gentleman. His mind is lucid and tough, his speech is precise, unembellished and neutral, yet nevertheless touched as though with a bitter memory. The over-all sense of him is of iron—iron-minded, iron-willed and iron-muscled. If the impression Mr. Paton inevitably gives is roughly accurate, dilemmas will get resolved in double time.

When he was asked if he would talk about the South African Negro and the American Negro, Mr. Paton nodded affirmatively, thought for a few moments, then spoke in an exact, nearly formal platform manner.

"The first great class of Negroes in South Africa one might still call tribal," he said. "Even so, they don't lead a life completely untouched by Europeans. From a tribal life they go to the mines and industry—mainly the mines. They, as a rule, are the most primitive of South Africans.

"You have a second great class, those who live on the white farms in the country. The great tendency, however, is for the most intelligent of them to drift away from the farms and go to the cities and then you get the third great class—already broken from the tribal and rural life and become somewhat urbanized. They are much more in touch with the ideas of the world.

"Already there is emerging a fourth group, also preponderantly urban—teachers, ministers, doctors, business men. Oh, they form what may be called an African intelligentsia. They read books and newspapers. They know a great deal of what is going on in the world. They provide the political leadership. On the whole, they tend to become embittered and to feel frustrated. And already there is a tendency among them to look to themselves for their own salvation and even to scorn cooperation with those white people who have always devoted themselves to the cause of their advancement."

What percentage of the population did the Negro make up? Mr. Paton nodded agreeably.

"About 75 per cent," he said, "and it is for that reason that the white man fears his advancement. And it is this fear which is responsible for much of the legislation. I think it should be made clear that our parliament and senate are entirely white.

"The American Negro, for his numbers, has produced a far greater proportion of eminent and distinguished men. The reason for this is, of course, that there are not so many barriers toward his advancement as in South Africa; and the reason for that is, of course, that they constitute a much smaller percentage of the population, and that therefore the white American is less afraid of according him these privileges. At the same time I do not underestimate the great power of the American conscience. I do not suppose for a moment that it is just a matter of statistics. We in South Africa also have a conscience. But our fears are so great that the conscience is not so clearly apparent."

What was Mr. Paton going to do next? "My book," he said, "has had such a terrific backwash that I have not had time to sit down to do more work." What was Mr. Paton going to do about that? (It was here that Mr. Paton faced a certain digh-lemma.) "I haven't yet discovered whether I would write more if I went back to affairs, to a life of active participation in society. It just might be that I'm not the sort of person who can withdraw to some secluded spot and write books. I haven't yet found an answer to that question. But my mind is full of ideas and I should like nothing better than to be left alone to work some of them out."

He paused, a barely ironic pause. "However," he continued, "I am now expected to lend support to innumerable causes to which people suppose—and rightly suppose—I'm sympathetic. One cannot withdraw entirely from such participation, and so I still find myself going through an extremely difficult stage of adaptation and adjustment."

What sort of literature, Mr. Paton's interlocutor asked, moved him? "If you asked me," Mr. Paton replied, "what kind of topics appealed to me in writing, I would have to confess to you that I couldn't bring myself to write any book which would increase the amount of depression and dejection that exists in so many people already."

But how would it be known whether a book would depress and deject? There was proof everywhere that depressing material did not need to depress. There was the idea of the catharsis. "Ah, yes," Mr. Paton said, "that's a different thing where writing tragedy brings out a catharsis. My objection isn't to tragedy, because I believe tragedy and human life are inseparable. I believe that human life is meaningful and purposeful, and just to write a story of human corruption—I think I could write it as horribly as anyone [from out the stern face there issued, surprisingly, a brief, loud laugh]. I don't find corruption a fascinating or rich theme to write about.

"I should like to write books about South Africa which would really stab people in the conscience. I don't see any point in writing provocatively for the sake of being provocative, or antagonizingly for the sake of being antagonizing. But I do believe there is a level at which one can write where it is no longer a question of provoking or antagonizing, but simply a question of stating an overwhelming truth that a man just cannot deny. He may still be angry with you for having presented the truth, but he is not angry with you for the way in which you've presented it. After he has confronted the truth in that fashion, he is not the same man again."

Mr. Paton stared sternly at his interviewer. Was it the end, was Mr. Paton finished? No, Mr. Paton was not finished. "One rather good critic," he said, "entitled his review of my book, 'A Gentle Protest.' But I believe the book is not so gentle as it looked. What looks gentle is often far more powerful than all the ranting and raving in the world. And it is my hope to go on touching the conscience of South Africa in this fashion. But I haven't purely a moral purpose. I also believe in the task of trying to interpret South Africa to the South Africans so that they can see themselves without illusions. It is a very fascinating and exciting task."

That, it was suggested, ended the talk rather nicely. "Let us end it," Mr. Paton said, "while there is an end."

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Meditation for a Young Boy Confirmed (short stories) 1944
Cry, the Beloved Country (novel) 1948
Freedom as a Reformatory Instrument (nonfiction) 1948
Christian Unity: A South African View (nonfiction) 1951
South Africa Today (nonfiction) 1951
Too Late the Phalarope (novel) 1953
The Land and People of South Africa (nonfiction) 1955; also published as South Africa and her People, 1957; revised editions, 1965, 1972
South Africa in Transition [with Dan Weiner] (nonfiction) 1956
Hope for South Africa (nonfiction) 1959
Tales from a Troubled Land (short stories) 1961; also published as Debbie Go Home: Stories, 1961
Hofmeyr (biography) 1964; abridged edition as South African Tragedy: The Life and Times of Jan Hofmeyr, 1965
Sponono [with Krishna Shah] (drama) 1965
Civil Rights and Present Wrongs (nonfiction) 1968
Instrument of Thy Peace: The Prayer of St. Francis (nonfiction) 1968; revised edition, 1982
The Long View (nonfiction) 1968
For You Departed (memoir) 1969; also published as Kontakion for You Departed, 1969
Apartheid and the Archbishop: The Life and Times of Geoffrey Clayton, Archbishop of Cape Town (biography) 1973
Knocking on the Door: Shorter Writings (essays) 1975
Towards the Mountain (autobiography) 1980
Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (novel) 1981
Journey Continued (autobiography) 1988
Songs of Africa: The Collected Poems of Alan Paton (poetry) 1995

Orville Prescott (essay date 1952)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Four Great Novels," in his In My Opinion: An Inquiry into the Contemporary Novel, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952, pp. 235-48.

[In the following excerpt, Prescott opines that Cry, the Beloved Country is among the "great novels," praising Paton's artistic treatment of the story's themes.]

The second modern novel which I dare call great is the finest I have ever read about the tragic plight of black-skinned people in a white man's world, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Without any of the blind rage which has led so many writers on similar themes into bitterness and dogmatism, without any of the customary oversimplification and exaggerated melodrama, Mr. Paton wrote a beautiful and profoundly moving story, a story steeped in sadness and grief but radiant with hope and compassion. He contrived for it a special prose of his own which is both richly poetic and intensely emotional. Anyone who admires creative fiction of a high order, anyone who cares to see how a thesis novel can be written without sacrificing artistic integrity, should not miss this notable book.

Alan Paton is a South African and his novel is about that beautiful and unhappy land. For many years he was the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory, a Johannesburg institution for delinquent African boys. He has lectured and written on the South African race problem, but this is his first book. He brought to it a rare technical skill as well as the contagion of his love for Africa and her tormented people. He is a man who can see evil and greed and cruelty and tragedy and not sink into despair. He knows that simple human goodness can still be found in a weary world.

Cry, The Beloved Country is the story of the progress of a Christian in whose path many lions stood. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo was an umfundisi, or parson, of St. Mark's Church at Ndotsheni high in the hills of Natal. He was an elderly Zulu, quite unacquainted with the dangers which lay in wait for his people when they left their hungry, eroded country for the great city of Johannesburg on the Witwatersrand. There segregation, poverty, a fantastic housing shortage, temptation and vice destroyed hordes of young men who sought a living in the gold mines. Their tribal society with its ancient laws and customs and moral traditions had been destroyed by the white people. And it had not been replaced by anything else save police and courts and jails.

Kumalo went to Johannesburg to hunt for his sister and his son who had disappeared there. His search was a tragic one. He found his sister first, and she had become a prostitute. He found traces of his son. As he plodded from address to address, finding graver news at each, Kumalo realized that Absalom, his son, had descended into a bottomless pit. So when the good white man who crusaded for native rights was murdered, Kumalo was appalled but not surprised to learn that Absalom was the murderer.

Kumalo's pitiful martyrdom was not all bitterness. His friend, Msimangu, a fellow preacher, proved to be an almost saintly man. The young white man from the reformatory where Absalom had been confined was hot-tempered, but earnest and kind. The white man who was the father of the murdered man was the source of unexpected comfort. The meeting of the two grief-stricken fathers, the proud, silent, conventional Englishman and the humble Zulu, is the high point of Cry, The Beloved Country. Then all the complicated social and personal threads of Mr. Paton's story meet and are entwined together in a powerful and extraordinarily touching climax.

Cry, The Beloved Country consists of an amazingly deft fusion of realistic detail and symbolical synthesis of various points of view and emotional reactions. As a picture of the fear and suspicion and hatred which haunt all South Africans, black or white, it is brilliant. The whites, who are so few, are frightened by the blacks, who are so many. Education, public health, social advancements of all kinds are dreaded for their capacity to make the Negroes more insistent in their demands and more conscious of their power. A minority of the disinterested and farsighted whites—and Mr. Paton pays them full tribute—are fighting for social justice. But they themselves are doubtful if they can persuade the whites to love soon enough—before the blacks learn to hate too well.

In conveying his message Mr. Paton never once damages his story, never once mounts a soapbox to orate at the expense of his novel as a work of fiction. His men and women are intensely real and sympathetic persons. Their conversations and their inner monologues are warm with the breath of life, in spite of the cadenced, lyrical quality which distinguishes them. Perhaps people don't really think or talk with such simple nobility of expression; but they never spoke in Shakespearean blank verse either. It is the truth of the spirit that counts, not stenographic reporting.

Current fiction, while often competent, interesting and provocative, rarely discusses an important and controversial subject with both creative artistry and generosity of mind. Because Cry, The Beloved Country is both so skillful and so generous it seems to me a great novel.

Myron Matlaw (essay date 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and Maxwell Anderson's/Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars: A Consideration of Genres," in Arcadia, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1975, pp. 260-72.

[In the essay below, Matlaw compares the generic methods of Cry, the Beloved Country to Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars (1949), a stage adaptation of Paton's novel, demonstrating how each work uses such formal strategies as narrative, stylistic devices, and characterization that achieve "very similar effects."]

Drama, if it is not stillborn, is the joint creation of writer, producer, director, actors, stage technicians, musicians, and others. It comes to life only if and when performed in theatres before groups of people (audiences), who respond positively, negatively, or apathetically. Their response, whatever it is, at least to some extent affects the character and quality of the performance, i.e., the character and quality of the play. For this and other reasons inherent in the very nature of live performances, no production can ever be exactly the same as any other one of the same play, even in the same run and with the identical cast. Furthermore, if a production is to survive, audiences must be entertained. Entertainment in the theatre appeals first of all to the senses and the emotions. Of primary importance and meaning, therefore, are the means by which the various senses of audiences are assaulted: spectacle, sounds, actions, movements, gestures, facial expressions—all of which are usually not even noted and are but rarely stressed in the published play. The dialogue—which constitutes virtually the whole of the published play—is often of secondary importance in performance, for spoken words are elusive and difficult to assimilate.

In sum, drama does not aim to engage the intellect primarily—if at all. Rather, it appeals primarily to somatic responses, to passions, to feelings, and to sentiments. To be understood and responded to immediately, as drama must be if it is to be viable, it can not be hedged by subtlety. Action and dialogue must be clear, direct, and simple. And reading a play, if it is to be meaningful, must therefore necessarily be most imaginative: the whole theatre—setting, actors, sounds, movements, spectacle, and yes, even audience responses—must be constantly evoked in the reader's mind, as it always is and as it has to be in the mind of the playwright. For example, Bertolt Brecht, who like many playwrights was deeply involved in the staging of his plays, kept the model of a theatre within view as he worked, to remind himself of his purpose, and of the trappings of the live theatre for which he wrote. Reading a play thus is analogous to reading a musical score: the reader must continuously translate (i.e., imagine or recreate) the written symbols into their total objective realities (the produced play, the performed musical composition), for the reading of scripts and scores is significant only if it is accompanied by the evocation of live performances. At the same time, reading scripts and scores can be the most rewarding possible experience of such works: it enables the conjuring up, at any imaginative reader's convenience and pleasure, performances which are ideal, perfect, flawless.

Fiction, on the other hand, is the product of one individual creator (for a story or a novel may exist as a completed work of art even in unpublished form). Fiction is written solely for other individual—not groups of—readers, who customarily peruse it in solitude, and at a pace wholly determined by each individual reader. A reader may stop and mull over single phrases or sentences or whole paragraphs, skip others, and return from time to time to reread passages or, for that matter, the whole work. Unlike the play, whose production is a juggernaut that proceeds on its preordained route without concern for individuals in the audience group, the novel lends itself to varying individual manipulations and responses, emotional as well as intellectual. Unless the aim is for a popular best seller—a product marketed for relatively unsophisticated and shallow minds—a novelist may therefore shape the language, ideas, and form of the work without any concern whatever with the need for simplicity, directness, and instant clarity. Subtlety, length, difficulty, neologistic experimentation and syntactical or semantic obfuscation (as in the novels of James Joyce), serpentine sentences (as in the works of William Faulkner), convoluted diction and loaded pronouns (such as those of Henry James), projections of dense and symbolic subjectivity (as in Marcel Proust's octad)—all these, which require careful exegesis for an understanding of even the surface meaning of the narrative, rather than being flaws, when artistically wrought may even enhance a novel. The same characteristics destroy a play.

These perhaps obvious but all-too-often forgotten generic distinctions must be borne in mind in any comparison of particular works of drama and fiction, even if their plots and characters be the same. If the comparison is that of a novel with a musical play, the generic distinction is even greater and more interesting. A case in point is Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars (1949), a dramatization of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948).

Paton's novel, it may be recalled, is an episodical portrayal of racially-divided South Africa. The sufferings of Kumalo, a Zulu country pastor who visits Johannesburg, epitomize the sufferings of the blacks—just as the tragedy befalling Jarvis, Kumalo's wealthy white neighbor, universalizes the tragedy of racial strife. With the help of a Johannesburg minister and others, Kumalo finds his brother John, a successful merchant and politician whose oratorical skills arouse the blacks and alarm the police, and his sister, who has become a prostitute and neglects her child. Most painful of all is Kumalo's discovery that his son, Absalom, had become a delinquent, been sentenced to a reformatory, and is now missing. Absalom participates in a notorious Johannesburg murder—that of Jarvis' son, a fervent civil rights advocate. At the trial, Absalom confesses his part in the crime, and is condemned to death. The heart-broken Kumalo returns to his village, where crop failures are causing starvation. Unable to help, he is urged by his superior to leave his congregation. The slain man's little boy unwittingly saves the blacks by describing their plight to his grandfather. Jarvis, who in his grief has tried to understand his murdered son's social views, ultimately provides the villagers with the desperately needed help. Coming to terms with the murder and the racial gulf between them, the two bereaved fathers are able, however painfully, to communicate and understand each other's sorrow even as Kumalo, on the dawn of his son's scheduled execution, goes up the mountain and weeps in solitude.

Though the play, with its haunting musical score by Kurt Weill, has been criticized as a feeble replica of a powerful novel ("A strong novel can make a weak book", the Washington Daily News of February 21, 1972, headlined its review of a recent revival), both works are deeply moving. But they accomplish their very similar effects in quite different ways, each in a manner befitting its own genre.

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. Another example occurs early in the novel; after Kumalo commends Msimangu's kindness, the latter's demurrer, I am not kind, I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all, is echoed by him and by Jarvis at the end of the novel in his last meeting with Kumalo, when the white man fiercely interrupts the black pastor's praise by disclaiming any great personal virtue:

     —I am no saintly man, said Jarvis fiercely.
     —Of that I cannot speak, but God put His hands on you.
And Jarvis said, That may be, that may be

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 (Chapter 13) and the errant son's name (Absalom), they sometimes even echo the Bible directly, as in this passage: Kumalo's heart went out in great compassion for the boy that must die, who promised now, when there was no more mercy, to sin no more. 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, such as the ones just cited, 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: the Kumalos, the Jarvises, the Harrisons, and the Johannesburg Kumalos (John and his son, who represent a different kind of opposition to apartheid).

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. Thus the portrayal of the natives' boycott of the buses (Chapter 8) juxtaposes a vivid picture of this historical event with old Kumalo's search for his son, with Dubula's type of black leadership, and with Msimangu and Kumalo's reactions of some whites' incredible and courageous kindness to the blacks. (Yet another contrast is of course implied in the portrayal of the other black leaders, especially with Kumalo's brother, discussed below.) Similarly, the vignettes of Chapter 9, like John Dos Passos' U.S.A. vignettes of the American milieu of the early part of the century, depict the desperate natives' housing shortage and their misery and corruption which accompany the erection of Shanty Town. These vignettes appear as Kumalo prepares to visit his son and the girl in that very Shanty Town, an environment which has already predetermined those young people's wretched existences. In a comparable manner, the discovery of gold in Odendaalsrust (Chapter 23) occurs at the time of Absalom's trial, and it is tied in with the socio-economic realities that, like the treatment of the native miners, have brought and (unless ways are changed) will continue to bring tragedy to blacks and whites alike.

Striking in these descriptions are Paton's changing tone and point of view. 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 presented through the eyes of one or another of the characters, though this apparently limited point of view is controlled by the author to convey specific effects. Whatever the viewpoint, there are constant yet subtle shifts in tone, ranging from sympathy and hope through bewilderment, grief, and indignation.

The lyrical first paragraph of the brief opening chapter of Book I is identical, word for word, with the opening of Book II: There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills … which are lovely beyond any singing of it…. Both openings describe the panoramic beauty and the lush vegetation of the hills. This is the home of Jarvis, and the opening description of Book II, which focuses on Jarvis, stops with the hills. The opening chapter of Book I, which focuses on Kumalo, continues with another and in all respects contrasting description, that of land that is barren and desolate, the valley in which Kumalo and the other blacks live. The titihoya does not cry here any more, for here there is insufficient food to attract even a bird. The tone becomes indignant as the green fecundity of the hills is contrasted with the red barrenness of the valley: Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for…. Finally, as we are shown the sterile land in which only the aged are left, the tone becomes elegiac: … the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more.

Even more explicitly 'editorial' are the sections that follow newspaper accounts and such other apparently journalistic digressions as the vignettes on the erection of Shanty Town, the panoramic view of Johannesburg's fear after the murder, and the descriptions of the discovery of gold and the miners' strike. In these chapters' terminal sections, the attitudes implied in the apparently objective narrative are made explicit. After the newspaper report of the murder is read aloud by Father Vincent, for example, his listeners remain silent. But the author editorializes: Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens the pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart. The chapter immediately following (Chapter 12) presents numerous vignettes (paralleling the vignettes of the misery of Shanty Town in Chapter 9) vivifying the fear in the land and the fear in the heart that preclude enjoyment of life and the beauty of nature: scenes at a suburban meeting in which are expressed demands for greater police protection, proposals for the amelioration of the natives' poverty and despair, debates on the efficacy (and expense) of educating the blacks, and arguments about enforcing the pass laws; ladies chatting in a country club about various proposals that are unfeasible because they would inconvenience or threaten the whites and are therefore discarded (Oh, it's too hot to argue. Get your racquet; my dear, they're calling us …; and other such settings and discussions. At the conclusion, the author once more editorializes: Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear….

Understatement, deceptive simplicity, repetition, selectivity of narrative, episode, and setting, as well as the emotional charge of Paton's style—all these are manifested also in Paton's characterizations.

The novel's major character, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, has evoked its readers' greatest compassion. Throughout his sufferings he remains an apparently humble, affectionate, kindly, simple, pious, God-fearing old man. Yet far from being simple or simply virtuous, he is portrayed in depth, as a flawed human being. Heroic in his ability to bear terrible private afflictions and tragedy, he is also able to continue to lead his parishioners out of communal suffering and tragedy. At the same time he is subject, too, to anger that manifests itself even in cruelty: to prove her depravity. Kumalo viciously tricks his son's mistress into admitting that she could be willing to become his own mistress; and he frightens his brother by lying, by falsely asserting that John is being observed by spies. Kumalo is guilty even of the most heinous of all Christian sins, despair, a sin against which both Msimangu and the kindly English pastor, Father Vincent, sternly caution him on different occasions. Kumalo is marred, too, by such lesser human flaws as jealousy (when he learns about the salary of the agricultural demonstrator), vanity (his boastful behavior toward fellow blacks in the train to Johannesburg), and pride (in being the brother of a man who enjoys material luxuries); and there is an allusion to an earlier episode that had nearly culminated in adultery with one of his parishioners. Finally, though he is well aware of its futility, Kumalo cannot resist repeatedly nagging his already contrite and doomed son with recriminations and unanswerable or futile questions. All these attributes of Kumalo are shown rather than stated, and their manifestations are narrated with striking verbal economy and deceptive simplicity.

Jarvis, Kumalo's white pendant, is more elusively characterized. Seen only after tragedy has struck, Jarvis is never actually shown in his opposition to his son's socio-political beliefs and practices. A single brief speech, however, makes clear that the unportrayed relationship between Jarvis and his son was identical to that of the Harrisons, his daughter-in-law's brother and father. One of their functions in the novel is, precisely, to suggest—without actually depicting—the affectionate yet antagonistic relationship that had existed between Jarvis and his son, Arthur. My son and I didn't see eye to eye on the native question, Jarvis tells the younger Harrison; in fact, he and I got quite heated about it on more than one occasion. But the novel itself depicts only Jarvis' painfully going through his dead son's belongings, agonizing over them, and finally coming to terms not merely with his son's murder (ironically by one of the very natives whose cause he had so fervently championed and whose love he had so widely enjoyed) but with the whole 'native question' and, indeed, with the central 'question' of South Africa—and of universal human brotherhood. His last gesture on that sad visit to Johannesburg is to leave young Harrison a large check with instructions to do all the things you and Arthur wanted to do.

Even some of the minor characters are portrayed in three-dimensional terms. The almost saintly Msimangu, as he himself says in his already quoted remark, is not flawless; though he later apologizes for his bitter, sarcastic comments to Kumalo about Absalom's girl and her unborn child, these comments deeply wounded the already stricken father, as Msimangu knew they were bound to do. His white counterpart, the sympathetic young reformatory worker (who in part personifies Paton himself), later apologizes for his similarly harsh outburst, which also was caused by such frustration, anger, and grief.

Though less subtle, the characterization of Kumalo's brother is striking. Both John's private and his public actions (especially in Chapter 26, which shows him on the speaker's platform, mesmerizing even his brother and worrying the white constabulary) help to develop his portrayal as a very great orator with the voice of a bull (and other bullish attributes) who could rally the natives to revolution in order to assert their human rights. But he stops short of the decisive step because he is a cowardly opportunist out only to get what he can in a society structured to keep him enslaved, and he is too amoral and—above all—too fearful of jeopardizing his personal comfort and success. There is no applause in prison, the omniscient author wryly observes, and Msimangu expresses his relief at John's corruption, for if he were not corrupt, he could plunge this country into bloodshed. He is corrupted by his possessions, and he fears their loss, and the loss of the power he already has. How right Msimangu is in this assessment is clearly shown in the brief description of John's immediate panicky reaction to his brother's suggestion that he might be arrested: The big bull man wiped the sweat from his brow. His deficient leadership is thus explicitly contrasted with that of Dubula and Tomlinson, especially as depicted in Dubula's participation in the bus boycott scene (Chapter 8).

In a comparable manner, their sister, Gertrude, another minor character, is also presented meaningfully. She is believable as a decent woman driven to brassy whoredom and shabby motherhood by apartheid and its effects. But she strives for decency, however unsuccessfully, escaping her tormenting fleshly temptations only by joining a nunnery. In contrast, Absalom's mistress, despite a similar past, fits into Kumalo's pious life style as soon as she enters Mrs. Lithebe's house. The girl is not like Gertrude. She is openly glad to be in this house, the narrator says, and Mrs. Lithebe does not need to chide her as she must chide Gertrude. Such carefully and subtly and symmetrically wrought contrasts are achieved in the portrayals of these women just as they are in the portrayals of the Kumalo brothers, of Jarvis, and of Harrison—all members of the conflicting old order as well as fathers in conflict with their sons, proponents of differing new moral as well as new social orders.

All such subtleties as well as the earlier noted understatements and modulations in viewpoint are not practicable in the theatre. Here, as been suggested before, speech and action, taking the place of the written word, must move more rapidly, simply, and clearly. Yet even within the limits imposed by the medium of the stage, Anderson in Lost in the Stars strove not only to dramatize Paton's story but also to communicate Paton's attitudes, to recreate the effects Paton had sought, and to evoke comparable responses.

The most immediately striking changes in the stage adaptation are the additions, the various types of ensemble and choral 'numbers' that are obligatory in the musical theatre: comedy (the honky-tonk law court spoof of I 6 as well as Alex' playful song and game of II 5), sex (Linda's Who'll Buy? song in I 6), romance (Irina's Trouble Man and Stay Well of I 7 and II 2), and sentimentality (winsome children—Alex, and to a lesser degree Edward—and Kumalo's Thousands of Miles and The Little Grey House songs in I 1 and I 5). Though fashioned for Broadway audiences, these numbers are well integrated in the plot and they do not distort or detract from Paton's story. Some of them, particularly Kumalo's songs, even enhance it. Thousands of Miles, as will be seen, transcends the sentimental and provides an effective musical equivalent to Paton's final narrative in the novel. Lost in the Stars, the first-act curtain song, movingly dramatizes the old pastor's temporary religious doubts—perhaps not quite as sinful as his despair, but certainly as effective in the theatre as Msimangu's and Father Vincent's castigations are in the novel. Similarly, Kumalo's agonizing over Absalom's dilemma in The Soliloquy (Must be tell a lie and live—/ Or speak truth and die? II 1), while it adds a doubt not entertained by Kumalo in the novel, prepares for his appeal to Jarvis for a mercy plea in the next scene, and conveys his impotence in helping his son as powerfully as does his futile nagging in the novel.

These musical additions have the same effect as Paton's novelistic understatements: they heighten the emotional impact. Kurt Weill's characteristic 'song play' score, though it lacks the Brechtian bite of his most famous works, articulates Anderson's stark if sometimes sentimental lyrics which explicitly articulate Paton's implications. Matching these lyrics, Weill's swelling, operatic music and his jazz idiom permeate his score for Lost in the Stars—his last score for Broadway and the one Lotte Lenya thought superior to all his others except for Die Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny.

Almost as obvious a change as the addition of music is the simplification of the novel's plot. It is reduced to but a few highlights, for on the stage Paton's story necessarily had to be cut all the more because of the added 'numbers'. Anderson sacrificed many of the novel's subtleties and omitted many of its episodes entirely. The omissions constitute substantial elements of the novel: Kumalo's extensive associations with Msimangu, Father Vincent, Mrs. Lithebe, and others (none of whom appear in the play); fictionalized treatments of historical events (the bus boycott, the discovery of gold at Odendaalsrust, and the miners' strike); Kumalo's reunion and subsequent relations with Gertrude (who does not appear in the play either); most of the episodes dealing with Jarvis and with John Kumalo and, of course, everything relating to their associates; and virtually the novel's entire denouement.

Such substantive cuts necessitated changes in plot and character, and additions of new episodes to clarify and speed the action along. Thus Kumalo's extended and eventful search for Absalom, constituting much of the novel's Book I, is telescoped into a single scene (I 4), the dread as Kumalo hurries alone from address to address being conveyed effectively by the chorus. His two visits to Absalom's Shanty Town shack (Chapters 10 and 16) are fused in I 7, where the pregnant girl, Irina (she is nameless in the novel), sings tenderly about her love for her Trouble Man. In place of Msimangu and others who in the novel share Kumalo's experiences, thoughts, and discussions, Anderson expands the role of Gertrude's boy, Alex. It is he who has a long talk with Jarvis' grandson (not Kumalo, who in Chapters 31 and 33 has three different encounters with the white boy). And Alex also appears prominently in various episodes invented by Anderson, such as the one in which Kumalo sings to him about their home in Ndotsheni (I 5).

The portrayal of the murder, which in the novel is revealed indirectly and only gradually, through rumors and in the cross examination (Chapter 22), is acted out on the stage in a brief but tense and violent scene (I 8). The ensuing communal fear (described in the various episodes of the novel's twelfth chapter) is dramatized by a chorus of blacks and whites on a Shanty Town street (I 10). On the stage, both fathers are seen aware of the murder immediately: there is no dramatization of Chapters 18-21, for example, which portray Jarvis' learning of and attempting to come to terms with his son's death; or of Chapters 11 and 13, in which Kumalo has premonitions that associate Absalom with the latest reported murder. Necessarily such expediting of the plot sacrifices suspense as well as subtlety of characterization.

Anderson's most radical change of the story line is in the denouement. Paton's ending fuses Kumalo's acceptance of divine will and an understanding and mutual compassion between Kumalo and Jarvis as men and as fathers as well as members of different races, within the social and economic context of apartheid. The complexity and implications of that context, so sensitively structured in the novel's last five chapters, are deleted from the play. Anderson's simplification not only does away with the perhaps undramatizable descriptions of Kumalo's feelings and thoughts during the solitary vigil on the mountain. It substitutes for them Kumalo's and Jarvis' exclamations of brotherhood—I have a friend—as the white man puts his arm around the black man and the clock strikes the fatal hour. This simplistic resolution is undeniably sentimental as well as meretricious.

As these changes suggest, much of the novel's subtlety and suspense are sacrificed. Characterization in the play too is simplified, both in variety and depth. Not only are Msimangu, Father Vincent, Mrs. Lithebe, Gertrude, as well as the various Jarvis in-laws and friends and many others, black and white, completely eliminated in the play. The major characters themselves are diminished as characters.

Kumalo remains a simple, humble, affectionate, kindly, pious and God-fearing old man—but the 'negative' qualities that make him believably human are missing. Instead of being shown in sinful despair he is shown in abject misery. And he has none of the flaws he exhibits in the novel: jealousy, vanity, pride, and fleshly temptations. Omitted, too, are his futile nagging of the contrite Absalom. There is only a single manifestation of his anger (Kumalo's tricking Irina into agreeing to become his mistress, Chapter 16 // I 7, its sexual suggestiveness perhaps making it irresistible for a Broadway musical.

Jarvis, instead of being Kumalo's white pendant—a major and well-rounded character who helps to universalize the meaning of the novel's plot—here is a villainous but a minor character. In Anderson's dramatization of the racial themes, Jarvis is a stereotyped bigot who at the very end 'reforms', suddenly and totally. In an early scene (I 2), for example, the arguments between Jarvis and his son, merely hinted at in the novel, are portrayed in an explosive outburst of paternal fury when Arthur, in violation of South African custom, crosses racial lines to greet Kumalo. The novel's muted portrayal of Jarvis' feelings after the murder (Chapters 18-21) is similarly changed: instead of Paton's descriptions of Jarvis' reactions of shock, grief, and concern for his wife, Anderson has Jarvis merely rail contemptuously at all blacks (I 9). The identical effect is achieved in the complete alteration of the post-murder meeting between the two fathers: instead of the painfully allusive few words following their accidental confrontation (Chapter 25), Anderson has Kumalo seek Jarvis' intercession for mercy for Absalom, thus eliciting yet another of Jarvis' bitter racial tirades (II 1).

The character of Kumalo's brother, John, is similarly diminished and altered. In the play he is simply a sleazy operator and a gross human being. His summoning letter to Kumalo (Anderson's substitute for Msimangu's letter in the novel) foreshadows his actual appearance in the play in the letter's opening words (Dear Stephen, you old faker in Christ …) and in the blunt report of their sister's flagrant promiscuity (not even mentioned in the original letter by Msimangu) which, he complains, is ruining his business (I 1). The substitution of two bland Zulu or Bantu political lieutenants for the novel's black leadership group of which he is a powerful and shrewd member further diminishes his significance in the play. These and other simplifications of plot and characterization seem to destroy a complex, moving, and believable story. Nonetheless, Anderson and Weill's generic conversion of this story is essentially faithful to and communicates much of the effect of Paton's work.

For what is most felicitously theatricalized is what is central to the novel, the narrative and the perspective. As has been suggested above, Paton's authorial intrusions and shifting viewpoint are not only integral to the story line. Rather, it is they that give the story much of its meaning and power. And while the story and the characters are indeed considerably simplified in the play, these fundamental elements of narrative intrusion and point of view are effectively and pervasively adapted into dramatic terms.

In place of the novel's narrator and author, a chorus of 'singers' and a 'Leader' articulate the narrative and the viewpoint of the action on the stage. Commenting on individual episodes and participating in them, the chorus and Leader are the most prominent characters on the stage—visually, aurally, and kinetically. Throughout the play, they sit, stand, and move about on flights of steps that lead from the orchestra pit up to the center and the sides of the stage. Thus the chorus and the Leader are invested with the fluidity and flexibility to translate the shifting narrative tone of the novel into quite theatrical terms. The lyrical introduction of the novel (There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills …), for example, is sung by the Leader in the opening number of the play, the contrast between the hill and the valley stressed by the spoken interpolations of a straight man (the 'Answerer'). The Wild Justice song that starts the second act does not (as does the novel's opening of Book II) repeat these words. However, it conveys a similar theme: the injustice of men, who punish crime by committing further crimes—in contrast to wild (or nature's) justice which, as a series of images suggests, is divine and ineffable. (The injustice of man is the subject again in the brief lyrical choral interpolations during the trial in II 3.)

Paton's angry compassion is expressed by the chorus in its principal numbers. Immediately after Absalom's conviction, the chorus sings Cry, the Beloved Country (II 4), a lament for the human waste, rapacity, destruction, and fear that will pass on to the next generation. The chorus' reprise following Absalom and Irina's marriage in prison explicitly incorporates this thought into the general lament: Cry, the unborn son, / fatherless, / … / Cry, the beloved country! Echoing the novel's narrator, the chorus, constituting Kumalo's congregation at his resignation, prays for divine guidance as it reviews man's brief earthly pilgrimage in the A Bird of Passage song (II 5).

Here and elsewhere the chorus not only comments on but also itself participates in and becomes a part of the action. As a group of Zulus bidding farewell to a companion at the village railroad station (I 2), it intersperses its singing with the thrice reiterated lines suggested in the novel (Chapter 2) by Kumalo and his wife, that while

White man go to Johannesburg
He come back, he come back.
Black man go to Johannesburg
Never come back, never come back!

To accentuate the frantic father's search for his son in Johannesburg (I 4), the chorus is used imaginatively and effectively to recite the various addresses he is given, to comment on the tearful omens (A boding song, / Searing like flame), and to articulate Kumalo's humiliation when he hears that his son has been in jail (In prison cells they give you a number, / Tag your clothes with it, / Print your shame!). Reporting the crime, the chorus in the Murder in Parkwold song (I 8) conveys the frenzy as it repeats the simple title phrase, adding descriptive phrases spoken (not sung) by individual members of the chorus who represent various townspeople: Nobody knows why or by whom!… He [the victim] went to help the servant! etc. In a song that constitutes the whole of I 10, a chorus of black and white singers articulates various forms of the Fear of the few for the many, / Fear of the many for the few! that pervades the land following this latest crime. In the play's final scene, the chorus dramatizes and heightens the apprehensive suspense as Kumalo awaits the hour of his son's execution by the repeated chanting of the ominous words Four o'clock, it will soon be four.

The play's curtain is the choral reprise of Kumalo's Thousands of Miles song, his first song in the play:

Each lives alone in a world of dark,
Crossing the skies in a lonely arc,
Save when love leaps out like a leaping sparkOver thousands, thousands of miles!

These words are the peroration of the paean to familial love with which Kumalo had consoled his wife in the play's modification of the couple's painful recriminations during the letter episode (Chapter 2 // I 1). Coming here, right after the Kumalo-Jarvis 'brotherhood' scene and at the very end of the play, the choral reprise constitutes an effective equivalent to Paton's narrative section that ends the novel: his confidence, however tentatively formulated, that South Africa will some day become emancipated from racism, hatred, and fear. Though in manifestly different ways, the endings of both the novel and the play communicate similar feelings with equally great intensity. But each does so with complete appropriateness and consistency to its particular genre.

Weill's music and Anderson's lyrics as well as his selectivity and reshaping of the novel's episodes—all these translate Paton's novel into theatrical terms. As does any translation, of course, this one too presents many problems, some of them insoluble. Necessarily something of the original is lost, as is always the case. At the same time (as is true particularly of poetry), effective translating can be done only by reshaping the original in accord with the translator's own and very different language. The result is a new work that may be as good as or even better than the original. Though Lost in the Stars may not be 'better' than Cry, the Beloved Country, or perhaps is not even 'as good', it conveys the essentials of the original work in a powerful manner. Both in artistic and in commercial terms, it successfully transposed Paton's novel from the printed page to the living theatre, employing the different means necessary to portray similar characters and actions, to express similar attitudes, and to convey similar effects.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Criticism

Davies, Horton. "Pilgrims, Not Strangers." In his A Mirror of the Ministry in Modern Novels, pp. 113-36. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Studies the characters of Reverend Stephen Kumalo and Father Vincent in Cry, the Beloved Country, focusing on the relationship of Protestant missionaries to the interracial complexities of South Africa.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. "Paternalism, Ideology, and Ideological Critique: Teaching Cry, the Beloved Country." College English 19, No. 3 (October 1992–February 1993): 206-10.

Espouses an ideological approach to teaching Cry, the Beloved Country, deconstructing the racist and sexist thinking that structures the novel.

Paton, Alan. "A Patriot's Dilemma: Why I Stay in South Africa." Commonweal CV, No. 22 (10 November 1978): 714-17.

Discusses the pros and cons of exile and the effects of Western investment strategies in South Africa.

J. B. Thompson (essay date March 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Poetic Truth in 'Too Late the Phalarope,'" in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 37-44.

[Below, Thompson explains how Too Late the Phalarope manifests universality despite the contemporary relevance of the novel's historical aspects.]

Instead of entitling this essay as I have done, I might simply have said an 'interpretation' of the novel, or more confidently (and, probably, more honestly) 'its meaning' or 'its value for us'. But what I wanted to stress were the limitations of focusing on the mere 'historic truth' of the novel. By historic truth I mean of course something much broader than what Aristotle had in mind in his Poetics and what historiographers aim at. Any novel offers itself not as fact but as fiction, but it is nevertheless possible to limit its significance to a particular time and place, to the social situation it purports to describe, or the one out of which it grew. (The two are of course the same in the case of Too Late the Phalarope.) This circumscription of literature happens not only when one adopts an explicitly historical approach, but also when one places too much emphasis on its historical aspects, or for that matter on its anthropological, sociological, economic or political aspects. The immediate relevance of a novel may in fact obscure its universality.

Too Late the Phalarope is, no less than Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, a great classic that will be read long after the Immorality Act has been blotted from the statute book as completely as Pieter's name was from the Van Vlaanderen family bible; long after apartheid has really 'died' and the Afrikaner has taken his rightful place in our society. But Alan Paton's fame as a champion of liberalism and the current world preoccupation with racialism in South Africa may well result in excessive emphasis being given to the novel's political or sociological aspects.

It certainly is a bitter attack on the Immorality Act, the "iron law" of "a people of rock and stone in a land of rock and stone" and the ferocity of it is brought home by the case of Smith, "an ordinary man, quiet and inoffensive" as his name implies and "a religious man after his own fashion" who is driven so far as to drown his partner in crime, chop off her head and bury it and sink her body in the river with weights. Similarly when Pieter's guilt is made public, it is realized immediately by Kappie, the captain and his aunt that he might very well be driven to suicide. But it would be absurd to say that the novel was about "Act 5 of 1927" or even about the mores of the community which imposes a "sentence for life" on people who contravene it.

Had this sort of propaganda been the author's purpose, he would surely have adopted a very different strategy. He might for instance have shown how ordinary members of the police force—and good Christians too—are compelled by the Act to become professional voyeurs: I remember a case of a policeman climbing a tree outside a bedroom in a Johannesburg suburb (armed with binoculars, I think) for a purpose as obscene as May's when she climbs the tree in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale. More important, however, than the sort of ammunition the author neglected to use is the sort of material he does use, the quality of the relationship with which he confronts us. To bring home the iniquity of the act and the sickness of the mentality behind it, he would surely have depicted a decent, upright man like Pieter falling foul of the tyrannical law, as a result of a noble passion for a soul mate whose skin pigmentation happened to be black; a case of "mind-forged manacles", imposed, in the name of a highly selective, arbitrary and hypocritical morality, upon true love (the sort of thing I read of as having happened once in Beaufort West which is perhaps the Cape equivalent of Venterspan as far as cultural deprivation is concerned, where a Brown middle-aged Anglican priest fell in love with the White spinster who was the village librarian and they were subjected to the indignity of a court-appearance). But Stephanie is no soul mate of Pieter's and not even a 'playmate', but is joylessly used by him as a sexual object for sinister psychological purposes of his own, and certainly not in a spirit of heroic defiance of a law that would fetter love.

It seems to be a proof of the author's integrity or honesty that he presents this sort of relationship, which, given the stratification or compartmentalization of our society, could probably be proved, statistically, to be typical of contraventions of the Act. I feel, however, that it is typical only in a negative way, that is as regards the absence of 'true-love' or a meaningful relationship. Pieter's complex motivation is, surely, far from representative (in a sociological sense, at any rate). His desire for Stephanie—one hesitates to call it sexual—is condemned by him as a "sin" and he clear-sightedly diagnoses it as a "mad sickness" and as "some mad desire of a sick and twisted soul". He is pained and perplexed to find himself tempted by something "unspeakable … that [brings] no joy" and that he hates. Not that he hates Stephanie herself: all he feels for her, apart from his temptation, is the sort of benevolence he feels towards all members of "the black nation".

The nature of this "mad sickness" which he himself cannot understand is, I feel, the crux of the novel, the question of universal significance that it raises. What makes him do it? The narrator's description of him as being "denied" and her image of the "man who is robbed of a jewel and goes seeking it amongst the dross and filth" refers of course to his wife's sexual reticence. Here one must indeed pay tribute to Alan Paton's integrity as an artist, his refusal to indulge in mere 'finger-pointing', his deep sense of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships. Nella is certainly not portrayed as frigid or unloving, though Pieter's mother perhaps goes too far when she declares in her charity: "she has no blame". Timid country-girl though she is, she was the one who, during the courtship that was so "long and shy and protracted" took the initiative that led to their marriage, and we are given two vivid and moving scenes in which their "joy" of their love is "complete" and in which she takes the initiative. The first is after the new dominee's sermon, when Pieter is self-conscious and hesitant on sensing her nervousness about any love he shows her, and the second is on her return from their temporary separation when she, not he, makes up a bed for them in front of the symbolic fire. We are left in no doubt that such generosity in love would make Pieter safe but we are also left in no doubt that these experiences are the exception, not the rule, that what is safe for him is seen by her as dangerous, for she very soon starts "withdrawing, to some safer ground, to some world where she was safe and sure". As her husband explains it, her idea of love, one that is "good and true but twisted in some small place" is that, "the love of the body, though good and true, was apart from the love of the soul, and had a place where it stayed and had to be called from, and when it was called and done, then it went back to its place and stayed till it was called again, according to some rule and custom". No wonder he has to ask her "to love [him] more often". Here again the author's integrity is apparent, in that we do not have to take the word of one of the parties involved: the shortcomings of her basic attitude to sex are cogently and impartially dramatized by the letter she writes from her parents' farm. In his letter, he has explained that it is not just 'sex' that he is after: "my love of you is a love of everything about you, and not just a love of your body" and "my love of your body is part of my love of you yourself" and on this basis has made a delicate and tactful appeal. Hurt by his implied criticism, she defends herself in terms that lend support to his accusation. Talking, for instance, of her loneliness without her husband, she concedes that she does "have the children" with her but adds that "that is not quite the same". This suggests a serious underestimation of the importance of sex in marriage. And her sarcastic rejoinder "Do you think that Frikkie and Greta came straight from heaven?" proves nothing more than that they have had sexual intercourse twice—in how many years?—and leaves one wondering about the spirit of her participation, if that is the word. And as for the way she feels towards it, the most she thinks of claiming in arguing the normality of her attitude is that she "accept[s]" the kind of love he writes about. Acceptance is usually a response to something unwelcome or unpleasant, a resignation to a necessary evil. And this impression that she generally puts up with love-making for his sake or to be 'kind' is confirmed by her subsequent affirmation that "a woman's nature is different from a man's" and that "for a happy marriage each must give up something, which I try to do". No wonder he reads her letter "with a face of stone".

Pieter's relationship with his wife is far from ideal, but Paton makes it clear that his problem goes much deeper than sexual frustration as a result of his wife's somewhat puritanical attitude. The very fact that he needs her love to make him "safe" suggests dangers whose origin lies elsewhere. What brings home most dramatically that his sickness does not stem in the last analysis from marital difficulties is the strategic placing of his fall in the narrative chain of the novel: it comes immediately after he has been picked up by his cousin Anna, and has enjoyed a drinking session with her at the local hotel. Here, one would think, would be the perfect opportunity for someone suffering from sexual deprivation. Anna is, after all, the one "who wears the yellow trousers" and "talk[s] in English"—both pointing to moral laxity of course. She adores Pieter and declares quite openly that he is the reason why she never married. She is thoroughly bored with her holiday in Venterspan (her parents would not trust her in Durban and regarded her proposed trip there in the light of a journey to the devil), his wife is away, he has been confiding in Anna, and they are in the precarious situation of having drunk too much. But Pieter does not commit adultery with her and more important is not even tempted, and their outing ends with her "lean[ing] over the gate" and chastely kissing him. This gate, I might mention, is, like the many doors in the novel, a symbol of a barrier between people, this time one that is not being broken down. And, if I may digress a moment, I might mention here the subtlety with which these and other related details of body language are consistently handled by Alan Paton in a manner reminiscent of Dickens and even of Conrad at his best. Immediately after this, for instance, we see Pieter "bump … against the iron standard at the corner of the fence" as if in anticipation of his crime, and, within a page, he is depicted symbolically taking off his uniform, carefully refraining from looking at the beds of his wife and children, "lock[ing] the front door after him" and standing "a moment" at his own gate, before disappearing into the still darkness.

It is not, then, a simple "desire of the flesh". He lusts after someone with very few personal charms, who is a member of a generally despised race and of an inferior social class, who is not only dull and destitute but is also an habitual criminal (Stephanie is forced to brew and sell liquor illegally and is in and out of jail). If his aim were to bring the maximum disgrace upon his family, he could not have made a better choice, and that, I feel, is precisely the point. It is a sort of blind irrational retaliation. His father, he realizes, has never really loved him and has, in fact, been ashamed of "the woman" in him, his tenderness and gentleness and his fondness for books and flowers. No wonder Pieter implies to Kappie that the "trouble" started when he was born. Hurt by this rejection, the sensitive child "armour[s] himself against hurts and the world" by withdrawing into himself. But he was always "eager to please" and later speculates that his trouble might be that he had "perhaps been too obedient as a boy, too anxious to please and win approval, so that [he] learned to show outwardly what [he] was not within" and that "perhaps when you were too obedient, and did not do openly what others did, and were quiet in the church and hard-working at school, that [sic] some unknown rebellion brewed in you, doing harm to you". Or again "Had I had too great a hunger for praise so that I turned in on myself, and hid all my weaknesses?" The consequence is an eruption of defiance that is tantamount to saying: "Since you cannot accept me for what I am, I'll give you good reason to reject me." His friend Japie the social welfare officer who "tinkered in his merry way with this problem and that, and saw nothing of the greatest problem of them all", unwittingly puts his finger on the root cause of his friend's problem when he declares rather pompously in the "university words": "We begin to think that lack of affection is one of the greatest causes of juvenile delinquency in a child".

Pieter's deprivation of paternal love is not merely asserted by the narrator in the abstract but is vigorously dramatized in concrete detail. For instance, Jakob never once smoked the pipe his son chose for him for a birthday present, and, before this, imposed on his sensitive son the unimaginative and severe penalty of forbidding him to go on with his stamps just because he once failed to come top of his class. The difference between his wife's understanding and compassion and his "unsmiling" and unloving justice is effortlessly established in two brief lines. "The boy wasn't well, said my sister … I said put them away, he said". Nor is this just a case of excessive sharpness on his part: one senses here a resentment of a part of his son's nature and an attempt to obliterate it. Later, when a professor at Stellenbosch pays his son a glowing tribute, he does not even bother to tell him. Worse, the DSO he won in the war is contemptuously dismissed as "uitheemse kaf".

The constraint in the relationship on both sides, even when overtures of friendship are being made, is neatly and unobtrusively conveyed. Pieter's response to his aunt's anxious reminder: "you won't forget his birthday" is "As if I would dare", and when Jakob and Pieter happen to meet in Kappie's store, he approaches his own son "determined to be friendly". The sequel is that Pieter is "caught" and starts like the guilty child his father still treats him as. The psychological and moral complexity of this scene, where the existence of a barrier is brought home to the reader by means of a well-meant attempt to break it down, points to the same sort of authorial integrity as was manifest in the portrait of the wife. The father is no mere villain or tyrant: in fact he has all the virtues except, unfortunately, the one that matters most of all. And in the period covered by the narrative he is frequently seen reaching out to his son, the pattern culminating in his buying for his son a set of special stamps, of all things. His delight in the book so carefully chosen by his son for his birthday strengthens the sort of impulse that made him determined to be friendly in the shop, so much so that he actually proposes an outing or picnic with his son, ostensibly to prove the book wrong about phalaropes being restricted to coastal areas. In fact he is "looking for no phalarope, but for something he had lost, twenty, thirty years ago". He cannot, however, propose an outing with his son "carelessly and naturally", despite or rather because of the earnestness of his effort, and so "the unusual words that his wife had never thought to hear spoken, but which she had prayed to hear these many years", "cry themselves out aloud in the room".

The overture has come 'too late'. Pieter has not yet broken the law but he is already deeply compromised with Stephanie and the insidious and relentless advance of his "mad sickness" to this stage has been forcefully dramatized. At the fall we remember—and this setting seems highly appropriate after the powerful evocation of the Eden-like "freshness of the day … the cleanness of the grass country [and] the purity of the great bowl of the sky"—while the two of them are alone, there is a moment of intimate physical contact, at first accidental but deliberately indulged and prolonged. And we are given a subtle hint of his own evaluation of this seemingly trivial incident when, just afterwards, he sees young Vorster "jump[ing] like a cat, softly and easily" and observes wistfully, "I could do that once", as if he has lost his youthful exuberance. The next step, placed just after it transpires that the book interests and delights his father (such scenes evoking hope are skilfully interposed between the steps of his downfall, for an effect of tragic inevitability) is when she calls at his father's house to ask him to "tell the government" that she has found a job. When he asks why she has come to him and not to the social welfare officer, she replies: "because the baas would do it for me". He fails to dismiss her suggestion of intimacy as he could so easily by saying "in a voice of every day": "how can you know such a thing?" or "do not be foolish" but confirms it by saying "quiet and trembling, how did you know?" At this juncture they are interrupted and she puts up a poor pretence of discussing police matters; but what is most significant is that he is "angry and afraid too", "not so much because of the boldness of the look as of the poor pretence that followed it". Like Macbeth he is worried not so much by his sin as by the chance of its being found out. The next step is even more drastic: she calls at his house in his wife's absence and suddenly comes past him into the kitchen. And, momentously, he "shut[s] the door". Throughout the novel doors are invested with great symbolic significance and the closing of this one acknowledges and increases the intimacy between them at the same time as it reduces the chance of discovery. And when she offers to let him know about the job, he replies rather irresolutely, "do not come any more to this house", thereby leaving open the possibility of meetings elsewhere. This is how she takes it and in telling him "when I am working I go home at eight o'clock past the place where the baas saw me running" she has arranged a tryst. Instead of his closing the door on her, she herself opens it and lets herself out. His doom is thus virtually sealed before the picnic is arranged.

On the outing itself, Jakob is "more gentle" and seems to lavish on Pieter's son some of the tenderness that Pieter himself had so desperately needed. When the phalarope appears, Jakob "rest[s] his arm on his son's shoulder to point" and so unprecedented is even this degree of tenderness that Pieter is "moved in some deep place within and something welled up within him that, if not mastered, could have burst out of his throat and mouth, making him a girl or child". But the intimacy associated with the father's discovery of the phalarope has come after Pieter has broken the law a second time "of his own will and choice". And it is a subtle touch, not always fully appreciated, that it should be the phalarope of all birds to bring father and son together, temporarily at least, for its distinctive feature is that it is the male which hatches the eggs and cares for the young, and shows, in general, the sort of tenderness for them that is associated with women. Thus we feel the full force of the narrator's observation at the beginning that her nephew had "something of the woman in him" but "the father none at all until it was too late".

Closely related to this theme of love and complete acceptance is that of compassion and forgiveness, as embodied ideally in Pieter's mother as against her patriarchal husband's stern, cruel, eye-for-an-eye type of justice, the fundamental contrast between them being succinctly established by Pieter's observation that his father he "could never have openly disobeyed" and his mother he "could never knowingly have hurt". And inseparable from all these is the Conradian idea of human interdependence, of our essential reliance on our neighbours for moral support.

Throughout his temptation and trial, Pieter feels a desperate longing "to tell one human soul of the misery of my life". A wise and loving father would be the obvious person but it is this very lack that has caused the whole problem. Nor can he confide in his wife though he does try to. But bearing in mind her idea of the coarseness of men's sexuality and her unforgiving attitude to Dick's "chasing" a Black girl—one remembers the bitter irony of this woman's not even wanting Dick in their lounge—he realizes she is hardly likely to understand and might well "fly away". He seriously contemplates confiding in the young dominee for whom rugby is "almost a religion"—he studied at Stellenbosch—but when he is called "the Lion of the North" and is accorded the adulation that is owing to a potential Springbok when he desperately needs help as a struggling Christian, his pride gets the better of him and he "[draws] back from the very edge of his salvation" or in the words of his aunt, "held [his] peace that was no peace at all". The same happens with his "true and faithful" friend, Kappie, who "understood the ways of the world and did not judge". He actually knocks on Kappie's door but when he enters he finds he lacks the resolution to open the doors of his soul. His other friend, Japie, is of course too flippant and superficial even to be considered as a confidant.

What finally provokes Pieter to broach the subject with a fellow human being is, appropriately, a gesture of tenderness from someone who might be seen as a surrogate father. At the time of the smallpox epidemic, the captain, noticing Pieter's exhaustion, calls him by his first name and puts his hand tenderly on his shoulder "as some fathers touch their grown sons and as some do not". Pieter is "moved in some deep place within", as he will be on the picnic, and momentously declares: "There's something I ought to tell you, sir." But he is silenced by the captain's "authority" and dismissed with a well-meant but disastrous "farewell salute". His aunt continually reproaches herself for not forcing him to confide in her, but on the day of the birthday party it is made clear that she could have done nothing. His startling declaration that he wishes he had not been born gives her an opening which she too eagerly seizes. Realizing that "he had opened the door of his soul and now repented it" she tries to force her way in before he shuts it again and literally shuts the pantry door on the two of them—as Stephanie will later—but realizes immediately that she had not "shut [herself] in" but "out". And on the picnic she receives a similar rebuff. This forcing of a confidence is seen to work in the case of young Vorster who has been having sleepless nights, like Pieter's, over a trivial debt, and this makes one wonder whether Kappie might not have saved him had he been less self-effacing and less in awe of Pieter. But this was not to be. And in the end, Pieter's craving for sympathetic understanding finds its only outlet in the keeping of a diary.

Kappie provides the crucial link between the different aspects of the theme of love in that, although he fails to elicit the confession that would have saved Pieter, he extends to him the understanding and love that give him the courage to go on living after his fall. This is graphically portrayed by Kappie's sitting down "beside him" at the side of the deserted rugby field with "his arm about him". His father by this stage has in his hurt pride (and let us not forget that this was, after all, Pieter's purpose) shut the doors of his house and withdrawn completely into himself. After his death, however, his wife opens the front door and has the blinds rolled up "so that something [can] go out of [the] house" and it is the sustaining love of people like her and her sister and Kappie and the captain that leaves us with "some kind of peace" and with some "comfort in desolation".

These, surely, are no mere "African truths".

Irma Ned Stevens (essay date Winter 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Paton's Narrator Sophie: Justice and Mercy in Too Late the Phalarope," in The International Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 68-70.

[In the following essay, Stevens examines Sophie's function and position as narrator in Too Late the Phalarope in terms of the novel's concerns with the natures of obedience and love.]

On its publication in 1953, Too Late the Phalarope, Alan Paton's second novel, was greeted with praise. With increasing focus on civil rights, not only in the Union of South Africa but also in the United States, the novel has become even more timely than when it was originally published. Further, Paton's continuing participation in politics and harassment by his own government have focused public attention on his works as social documents. Certainly, his novels are reflections of social injustice. Their importance as social criticism, however, should not blind us to their worth as literature.

While traditional standards of literary criticism have been applied to Cry, the Beloved Country, Too Late the Phalarope has been especially neglected since the publication reviews.

Like Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton's second novel reveals a skillful use of traditional techniques of fiction, including point of view. In Cry, the Beloved Country, the first-person narrator in the first and third sections is Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu minister who leaves his rural Ixopo to search for his lost son in Johannesburg. In the intervening second section, the narrator is James Jarvis, a wealthy European farmer who is Kumalo's neighbor and whose son Kumalo's son has killed. This double point of view serves to emphasize the two men's parallel spiritual growth, their movement through suffering to self-knowledge and knowledge about their nation. In Too Late the Phalarope, Paton also uses a first-person narrator, Sophie, the beloved maiden aunt of the main character, Pieter van Vlaanderen. The novel is composed of Sophie's reflections about her family as she reads sections of a diary Pieter has left her while he is in prison. The novel concerns both the nature of obedience, questioning the morality of a nation's requiring obedience to man-made laws which conflict with God's laws, and also the nature of love, recognizing the unity of body and spirit. Throughout the novel the mercy-justice dichotomy, as it affects obedience and love, is repeatedly dramatized in the action or examined in commentary by either Sophie herself, Pieter's diary, or the young dominee's sermons.

Paton suggests in several ways that the narrator's view is the standard by which to judge the characters' concepts of obedience and love. The first clue to Sophie's importance is her name, for her view is indeed that of "wisdom." She describes herself as an observer rather than a participant in life, and she is loved and respected by all the characters. Sophie's position of wisdom is a middle way between two extremes symbolized by Pieter's father, Jakob, whom Pieter recalls as "strict and stern," and his mother, "tender and loving." Allegorically, the parents seem to represent the stern justice of the Old-Testament God, as opposed to the loving mercy of the New-Testament God, with Pieter as an Everyman searching for the right way. Sophie's position is closer to that of Pieter's mother than his father, but in Sophie we see more strength and questioning than in his mother. Several times Sophie condemns traditional concepts of love and obedience as she recognizes how man's laws can wrongly conflict with God's. About Nella, Pieter's childlike wife, Sophie thinks, "For the mean and the cruel were not destroyed, only the kind and gentle. And God forgive me that I should write such words, which seem to doubt His Providence, but I will be obedient even when the words seem disobedient, and will obey the voice that says to me, what thou seest, write it in a book." And later, "But may God forgive me if what I write is wrong, and against His Laws; for I believe His laws are made in love, and though one does not understand, one should be obedient. And it is because I am obedient that I write these words." Sophie recognizes then the superiority of individual conscience over church dogma or state law.

Unlike Nella, Sophie also understands the nature of love. Nella, reared in the Dutch Reformed Church of the Afrikaner, accepts the Puritan belief in the evil of the body, but Sophie knows that mortal love must include the physical: "Ah, how great is God's gift of love, that love which is of body and mind and soul, and what should she who had it, not understand, and why should I understand who never had it?"

Sophie's wisdom becomes especially apparent where her commentary on a scene follows her reading of sections in Pieter's diary which dramatize that scene. Paton frequently juxtaposes Sophie's view as an observer with Pieter's feelings as they appear to Sophie as she watches him; then in turn Paton juxtaposes Pieter's apparent emotions with Sophie's later understanding of Pieter's actual emotions. Thus, although Paton does not employ two separate narrators as in his first novel, he achieves in this second novel a similar irony or recognition of discrepancies between appearance and reality by juxtaposing two characters' views of the same event. For example, the reader hears through Sophie the young Dominee Vos's two sermons about mercy and obedience. Then the reader sees through her eyes Pieter's response to the sermon and reexperiences with her Pieter's self-hate as she reads his diary. Similarly, at the birthday party for Jakob, the reader learns first in Pieter's diary of the visit of Stephanie, Pieter's black lover, and then reads Sophie's commentary as she recognizes that Stephanie is the cause of Pieter's suffering. In another illustration of the dual view, Sophie describes her pride at watching Pieter play rugby and her lack of understanding of Pieter's suspicious actions. In a succeeding section, the reader learns with Sophie of Pieter's fear that the young recruit Vorster knows of Pieter's liaison with Stephanie. In all three examples, the juxtaposition of sections of Pieter's diary with Sophie's commentary is effective because it allows the reader to learn with Sophie of Pieter's increasing agony, and it thus emphasizes the contrast between appearance and reality in Pieter's life.

Paton's placing Sophie between Pieter and the reader, just as his placing Pieter's philosophy between that of his parents, is an effective method of achieving aesthetic distance, which he achieves in Cry, the Beloved Country by expressing his own views through the manuscript of Arthur Jarvis or by dramatizing his views through Stephen Kumalo's odyssey. What then can we conclude about Paton's own opinion of the South-African conflicts between mercy and justice and between obedience and love? He condemns those laws and mores which inculcate hard justice without tempering it with love. That Captain Massingham and Sophie must go outside legal and familial restriction to show their love for Pieter suggests that acts of mercy or compassion must be committed outside the law or social approval. Does Paton suggest in this novel that there is hope for positive change? Despite Pieter's imprisonment for breaking the morality act, Paton seems to suggest some hope; Pieter's mother and Sophie reopen the family home after his father's death. Perhaps love and mercy will one day prevail.

Studying the narrator's position shows us the value of the novel as a work of psychological as well as sociological truth. As Pieter's dilemma and his anguish are recorded and examined by Sophie with a poignant sensitivity without sentimentality, the characters are seen as not only South African but human.

John Romano (review date 4 April 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Novel of Hope and Realism," in The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1982, p. 7.

[In the review below, Romano celebrates the classical emphasis on human truths and values of Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful.]

Alan Paton's first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, is one of the few works by a contemporary writer one would risk calling a classic; in the case of that novel, published in 1948, the word has a rather specific meaning. The idea of a classic is historically bound up with the view, powerfully embodied in Paton's book, that there are certain perdurable human truths and values, immune from geographical or historical vitiation. The classical view, with its Judeo-Christian modifications, acknowledges that we are flawed, but not therefore ignoble; the classical view is famously realistic about our limitations, but celebrates our sense of possibility and the idea of hope. Indeed, the one ignoble thing, from the classical perspective, is despair.

Paton has spent his long life—he will be 80 next year—in circumstances in which despair might long since have seemed reasonable. As a white man in his native South Africa, he has written nearly a dozen books in support of the struggle for racial equality there. He taught school in the outlying districts, managed reformatories, was a founder of the Liberal Party and saw it suppressed by the Government. And yet Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful shows no slackening of either his hope or his realism. This novel is as vigorously and as exquisitely written as anything he has produced. It has the eloquence, the special commingling of sweetness and anger, the Orwellian force and lucidity, familiar to readers of Too Late the Phalarope (1953), his second novel, and several other volumes since. Its tone is quietly anguished. Its classical appeal is based on a direct and simple confidence that the facts of his country's moral disaster will move all men and women, all at once, in the same direction.

Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful is a novel in the form of a pastiche-memoir of the Defiance Campaign and the Liberal Party in the 1950's. The narrative is made up of letters, reflections, character sketches, bits of dialogue, the transcripts of a trial, a summary of newspaper accounts and scraps of official documents juxtaposed or sewn together by a narrator who seems himself the possessor of a long, patient, irresistible historical vision. It begins with the arrest of an Indian girl, Prem, a lovingly drawn character, for deliberately using a white library in violation of the color bar. (American readers will be interested in the multi-racial character of the rights struggle in South Africa; it's not simply a matter of blacks and whites.) Prem's story recurs throughout the novel and includes her love affair with a white student activist, the son of a prominent Government official. The novel also traces the careers of several white leaders of the new Liberal Party, in particular Robert Mansfield, a respectable upper-middle-class headmaster and former soccer star, who is ultimately driven to emigrate to Australia by the fierce hatred his espousal of the cause of equality arouses. There are glimpses, too—and these are among the most telling moments in the novel-into the minds of some South Africans who are opposed to racial equality: an Afrikaner civil servant whose letters to his aunt defend the new apartheid policies, a spinsterish character who writes hate letters signed "Proud Christian White Woman" and whose letters reek of diseased fascination/abhorrence of interracial sex. The episodic threads are brought together by the sudden imposition of new and strict apartheid measures in 1958, as the Afrikaner Nationalist Party comes to power. The persecution of anti-apartheid forces grows quickly more severe: newspapers are suppressed and 150 black and white activists and politicians are arrested. In the novel's final darkest pages a character who is transparently Dr. Henrik Verwoerk has become Prime Minister, and the bitterest and most hopeless period in the South African struggle for equality—a period which extends to the present—has begun.

The cumulative anecdotal force of Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful is difficult to convey. Considering its abundant violence, the passion of its advocacy, and the hatred it matter-of-factly reports, the book is remarkably gentle. Something of its anomalous calm, and one hopes its effectiveness, can be found in the following passage, an elegy to Sophiatown, a "blackspot" within the white quarter of Johannesburg that was physically broken up by the Government in 1955. Father Trevor Huddleston, a white Anglican priest, and a real historical figure, spent long years working in the vice-ridden slum.

Sophiatown had become to him the home of all things lovely. It was the place where old men and women came into the great church of Christ the King on their hands and knees. The humility and faith of it smote him in the inward parts. It was the place where small black children ran out from the houses to hold the hand of the father. It was the place where he and Sister Dorothy Maud could walk safe at any hour of the day or night.

"—Father

"—Yes

"—I have killed a man.

"—When?

"—Now now. In Sithole's yard.

"—You were gambling.

"—Yes.

"—You promised me.

"—I promised you, Father, but I broke it.

"—What happened?

"—This man played a card that was not in his hand. I said, That card was not in your hand. So he pulled out his knife.

"—And you pulled out yours?

"—Yes, Father.

"—Which you promised not to carry.

"—I repent, Father.

"—Go on.

"—He would have killed me, but I struck first. In a minute he was dead.

"—And everyone saw it?

"—Yes, Father.

"—Let us pray, Michael, then we shall go to the police.

"—Let us pray then.

This quietly forceful exchange—unprepared for and never alluded to again—emerges abruptly in the text. It is an example of Paton's characteristic method. Individual human dilemmas are never swallowed up or diminished by the overarching political context of the story he is telling. Paton is relentless in his faith in the moral meaning of individual human experience. The incident is an ugly one; but Michael's confession restores to him the dignity of which he has nearly robbed himself. Paton's faith is not a religious one, but a faith in the function, the usefulness of personal sympathy.

We can ameliorate any situation we can describe in language; communication and empathy are the truly revolutionary forces in this novel, where people are converted to causes not by argument but by, as one of them puts it, "a lump in the throat."

Alan Paton's considerable practical contributions to political life in South Africa aside, his place in the literature of social protest has been secured by the his steady devotion to the ideal of the empathetic imagination in fiction.

Rose Moss (essay date Spring 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Alan Paton: Bringing a Sense of the Sacred," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 233-37.

[In the following essay, Moss traces environmental, liturgical, and spiritual influences in Paton's art.]

There is a country its writers do not name. Not all, or not in all works. But time after time, and more frequently during the last decade, we read the country's name into a negative space where, in works from another country, we would find a name. Or we read a circumlocution. Or we read an invented name and geography through whose features we recognize known eyes.

There may be many reasons its writers do not name this country. For some, no name presents the country as their own. Their intimate experience of the place, its land, its people and its voices may be so different from anything evoked by the common political title that they veer away. Perhaps they feel like members of a family who do not use the world's formal titles for each other. For some, the name threatens the intimacy of their warmth, because the name means something hateful, but the land is one they love. For some, to use the name would imply political recognition, which they refuse to grant. For some, the country is so doomed one can no longer employ the name it used to have; but the doom is not completed yet, and what will come in place of the doomed name remains unimaginable. They write of people, of birds, of places, but not of the whole under one name.

Whether as the creator of a tradition or as the prophet of a powerful imaginative prohibition, Alan Paton (b. 1903) was the first to use a circumlocution for the place alluded to ambiguously by Karel Schoeman as "the promised land" and by J. M. Coetzee as a "duskland," macrocosm of the microcosm in Athol Fugard's "Island," masked as the Republic of Sarmeda by Dan Jacobson, enduring nameless war in Barney Simon's "Our War," entering into the aftermath in Nadine Gordimer's July's People and, in Coetzee's masterpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians, fused with the United States and other political, historical and spiritual powers and principalities as "the Empire."

Whatever tragic doubts about its identity which this country imposes on its writers, in Paton the circumlocution suited much else in his style: a taste for the general over the particular, the moral over the physical, meaning over sense. The lyrical, homesick evocation of one of the fairest valleys of Africa, where the titihoya used to cry, an evocation which moved the world in 1948, comes to our attention as a sacred, biblical place. The lovely road from Ixopo to the hills takes us to a sensuously present Carisbrook, from where you look down; there is grass and bracken about you, you hear the crying of the titihoya. Perhaps one may see the valley of the Umzimkulu below. However, the river's journey from the Drakensberg to the sea and the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand behind the visible hills are present only to the mind's eye.

Carisbrook is a liturgical location: "The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil…. Stand unshod upon it for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator…. Destroy it and man is destroyed." Paton does not care for the prosy density of things that smell so and weigh so and taste so, whose meaning is in themselves. His physical world is translucent with significance—mental, moral and liturgical. Things do not speak of themselves; they testify to the presence or absence of the Creator.

In Too Late the Phalarope (1953) Pieter van Vlaanderen gives his father, who reads only one Book, a book of color plates titled The Birds of South Africa. At the evening prayer that night his father reads a passage from the Book of Job wherein Job has protested that his sufferings are undeserved and has been challenged by the voice from the whirlwind. "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?… Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail?… Gavest thou goodly wings unto the peacocks?… Hast thou given the horse strength?… Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?" Job (and Pieter's father), overwhelmed by the magnificence of creation and the Creator it implies, confesses, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee." For Paton, as for his character, the meaning of natural beauty is that it reveals its maker. The meaning of human life is similar, and the way it reveals is not by physical beauty but by moral righteousness. It is Paton's work as a writer to show that righteousness and to bring us, through what he shows, to a sense of the sacred or, in an irreligious age, of the significant. As a writer, Paton does not intervene to change or repair or prevent the imminent doom his stories portend. He does instruct on how to respond: cry.

The instruction to lament may be as prophetic as Paton's hesitation to name the beloved country. More than twenty years later Coetzee's magistrate uses images of birds and the original untainted garden that echo Paton's to begin an account of how the people of an outpost spent their last year composing their souls as they waited for the barbarians.

No one who paid a visit to this oasis failed to be struck by the charm of life here. We lived in the time of the seasons, of the harvests, of the migrations of the waterbirds. We lived with nothing between us and the stars. We would have made any concession, had we only known what, to go on living here. This was paradise on earth.

The cadences of mourning are the dominants in contemporary South African literature as more and more writers see and imagine the impasse Paton foresaw in 1948. Given the political hopelessness of peaceful change that would fundamentally reorder the beloved country and allow justice and peace, contemporary writers turn, as Paton did, to individuals. Perhaps in the scope of a single life one may see an image of meaning or decency one dare not look for in the society.

Paton's liturgical style and its clear connections with the Bible and Christian practice offer a way to connect individual virtue with the virtue and sufferings of others, with the history and hopes of devout people in other times and places and, finally, with the story of Christ, whose suffering and death demonstrate that the end of the story is not despair but hope. To most contemporary writers, Paton's faith and the literary means that connect present experience with larger, enduring myths of resurrection no longer have power. But, although such writers cannot share Paton's answer to the common dilemma, they often take a similar stance, perhaps the only stance from which the story can be told. It is the stance of an observer, a chorus, one who knows and feels what happens but cannot prevent it or alter it.

In Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) we adopt this stance of liturgical participation as we follow the way of Kumalo's cross, his journey from Ixopo to Johannesburg, his search for his son and the discovery that the youth has lived in what Kumalo calls sin with a woman, the discovery that his son has murdered. As for the son himself, we know him as "son" and "boy" rather than by any name of his own. When the action is not mediated through Kumalo, we learn of what happened through Jarvis. Here too, the actions happen off-stage, often in the past.

The movement of the book, then, is not in the actions of central characters but rather in the understanding and feeling of Kumalo and Jarvis. It drives toward resolutions that are symbolically significant. A dam is built. Kumalo waits for a dawn; it is the dawn of his son's execution, but it offers hope of the dawn of another day, the day when justice will light the earth: "But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret." Paton's fusion of the longing for a day of political and social justice in his country, like numerous other prophetic elements in his early fiction, prefigures many contemporary South African writers who turn to images of a final judgment and a new order in heaven and earth.

In Too Late the Phalarope, Paton's second and finest novel, we stand again at a remove. We learn of the action from the spinster aunt of Pieter van Viaanderen, usually called "the lieutenant." She recounts and interprets the story, but she is powerless to act. What she tells us is finished, done. When she tried to intervene, her nephew "shut the door of his soul" on her. She laments that she never spoke the words that might have saved him and "us all."

The action from which they are not saved is foreshadowed at the beginning of the novel when the lieutenant arrests a white boy who has been pursuing a Coloured woman to break the "Immorality Law" with her. We infer Pieter's own punishment when he warns, "It's a thing that's never forgiven, never forgotten. The court may give you a year, two years. But outside it's a sentence for life." As the action unfolds step by step, we recognize inevitability rather than feel suspense.

In the center of the book the quality of the narrative changes for a while. We come close enough to feel as well as observe the shock of the note on the door that says "I SAW YOU," the church bells that record black hours, the coldness of Pieter's subordinate and, the "most frightening thing of all," old Geyer's response to the lieutenant's greeting: Geyer "did not answer him with any word. He took the pipe from his mouth and spat with anger and contempt. Then he turned his back to the lieutenant and walked up the path to his house." We do not know, any more than Pieter, that these signs are ironically not related to his crime. We do know that when he feels relief to discover himself reprieved, something will happen to bring sentence down on him after all. We enter again into the numbness of one who knows what has happened and what cannot be undone.

Paton's liturgy contemplates tragedy in a world where spiritual power lacks material strength and is overcome by complex but unintelligent, undirected forces. The murder in Cry, the Beloved Country is not premeditated or malicious. It comes about almost by accident, in a state of confusion. The immorality in Too Late the Phalarope comes from Pieter's yielding to depression because his wife is confused about sex and inarticulately frigid, not from anything he—or Paton—recognizes as rage or evil intent. Paton does concede malice to Sergeant Steyn. Who contrives to accuse Pieter because he resents one rebuke made in anger, but we see Steyn's malice peripherally. The focus of the story is on the lieutenant and his yielding to temptation, not on the drama of one man's lust to destroy another.

Just as the patient, unflinching grief of Too Late the Phalarope conveys a sense of strength and endurance that become like hope and compassion and epitomize Paton's power to give a sense of universal dignity to suffering, what the author does not pay attention to in the book reveals the limitations of his imagination. Steyn's malice is significant. So also is the way we see Pieter van Vlaanderen's undoing but pay little attention to the woman who is the occasion of his sin. Her passion to remain with her child is supposed to motivate her complicity in betraying van Vlaanderen, although it is not clear what she stands to gain. We may guess at her anguish, but we do not see her with her child or know what happens to her after she has betrayed van Vlaanderen. Neither she nor anyone else in the book attacks the pharisaical self-righteousness of the women who know that they are better than she, that they are Afrikaners and are entitled to take her child from her. In the novel we accept their right, as we accept van Vlaanderen's potential to be a great man, although his happiest destiny would have been to lead, without question, the people, his own people, who define his sin and crime as "a thing never forgiven."

We accept Pieter van Vlaanderen as a good man because he is good in his private life. In all Paton's work, personal decency weighs strongly against political opinions Paton knows to be destructive, and personal cowardice or narrowness outweighs liberal theory. We know his good characters by their deeds and by what they endure to remain good—losses of comfort, wealth, community respectability, security and safety. They show compassion, generosity and tolerance even when the world threatens them. They often come into conflict with South Africa's laws because they obey higher laws. We do not know much about what distinguishes them in taste, appearance, humor, cadence of speech or characteristic turn of mind. We do know that they would choose peace if they could. With the passage of time and the increasing ferocity of South Africa's racism, conflict between Paton's good characters and those who support apartheid has become more open and more inevitable. Kumalo was a victim, but he still believed so much in white benevolence that some called him—and meek, devout men like him—"a white man's dog." In Paton's latest novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), central protagonists begin lives of protest in the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s. Paton has never consented to the rhetoric of revolutionary violence.

The split in Paton's imagination between spiritual and physical, which underlies his lack of interest in sensuous qualities and unique characters, shows up in political terms as a belief in a somewhat disembodied spiritual virtue as opposed to material power. Describing the nature and ground of modern-day Christian hope in 1974, he quotes Isaiah and Revelations as inspirations to look to a time of peace that transcends anything we can expect in historical time. The vision of dazzling sweetness, forgiveness and harmony that sustains Paton's hope has little specific, local vindication. He knows that the New Jerusalem, where all tears will be wiped from our eyes, looks like pie in the sky. He makes the claim of faith that it is also pie on earth.

The validity of Paton's vision was affirmed by two early and immense successes. After a life-threatening illness in his early thirties, Paton sought work with young criminals. Thanks to Jan Hofmeyer, then Administrator of Transvaal Province, who was to become Paton's hero and subject of a biography, Paton was appointed to run the Diepkloof reformatory for black boys. Within weeks he had changed the principles of governance from force, rebellion and disorder to respect, trust and internal commitment. One by one he unlocked the gates of the reformatory and left them open. Under the honor system fewer boys escaped for good than under the rule of iron. Versions of the troubling recalcitrant incorrigibles appear in some of Paton's stories and in his play Sponono (1965). For the most part, Diepkloof demonstrated the transforming power of faith, care and trust—and did so in a country deeply hostile to Paton's implicit respect and concern for his charges. When the Nationalists came into power in 1948, they rapidly changed the way Diepkloof was run and showed another way to treat lawbreakers and blacks.

Homesick on his first trip abroad, an expedition to learn about prisons and penal reform in Europe and the United States, Paton wrote the novel that brought his country's beauty and sad destiny to the attention of millions. The instant success of Cry, the Beloved Country, his first book, brought Paton fame and the financial security to devote his life to writing.

Soon Paton was drawn to realize his vision again in social action as well as in writing. He worked in the Anglican Church with Bishop Clayton, another hero and subject of a biography. When the Nationalists arrested more than 250 people on trumped-up charges of treason, Paton helped establish a fund for the defense and aid of political prisoners. The fund is now outlawed. Paton also became leader of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which advocated universal adult suffrage. The party never sent a member to Parliament and was outlawed by government legislation that prohibited racially mixed political parties. Through speeches and writing at home and (when he was allowed a passport) abroad, Paton worked to spread the vision of peace through trust that had seemed so efficacious at Diepkloof.

Paton has never acknowledged that racism and other kinds of evil might be as spiritual as the goodness he presents for us to see, revere and emulate. In a recent interview (1982) he talked of "the Afrikaner with his strong belief in God, but his real trust in the tank and the gun. As a matter of fact, it has always been." Deliberate, clear, chosen adult malice, Paton seems to believe, does not exist. In his most recent novel he presents a pitiful caricature of evil in a crazed writer of poison-pen letters. When she realizes that she is about to die, she repents. She says of the viciousness she recognizes, "Sometimes it seemed as though the Devil got into me," but we do not believe in the Devil and do not hold her fully responsible.

In history as in fiction, Paton does not imagine that evil can be practiced as an outcome of choice by competent adults who understand fairly clearly what they are doing or whose refusal to understand is itself a choice. Those who seem evil must be mistaken, misled or unfree. In Paton's writing, political monsters of our century seem anemic, hollow men. Paton mourns them in a tone that resembles his lament for Ixopo's lost beauty. Writing of the grand architect of apartheid, Verwoerd, he says, "That there is an element of cruelty in baaskap apartheid and in separate development seems to me incontrovertible." Then he wonders whether Verwoerd knew some of apartheid's implemented cruelties. Could Verwoerd, or anyone, know and relish cruelty?

Verwoerd admired and supported Hitler. He protested the admission of Jews to South Africa in the 1930s. He made Nazi propaganda during the 1940s and was found guilty in a court of law for siding with South Africa's enemy during World War II. He designed the main principles of apartheid still in place today and implemented them. He instituted Bantu education to teach blacks that "the green pastures reserved for whites are not for them." During a passive-resistance protest police opened fire, killing more than eighty people and wounding more than 200. Both the scene and the victims' hospital were sealed off from the press and other communication. When an international out-cry followed the publication of news and photographs, Verwoerd declared a state of emergency and had thousands arrested between evening and dawn. He appointed as Minister of Prisons and Justice a man who had been interned during the 1940s for supporting Nazi action in South Africa, and he passed laws that permitted arrest without warrant or charge and allowed indefinite confinement in solitary. Some of the arrested went mad. Some suffered accidents: they fell down stairs and died, or they fell from the tenth floor of the police building where political prisoners are questioned. Those events were known to Verwoerd. So were the conditions of life the political prisoners protested: fathers arrested when they came to cities to look for their children, wives who petitioned for permission to visit their husbands for seventy-two hours for "purposes of procreation," black/white wage ratios of one to fourteen. Paton knew what Verwoerd knew. On Verwoerd's death he wrote, "I cannot help reflecting that had Dr. Verwoerd been born into a wider world, where his gifts could have been used for the wider benefit of mankind, he might have achieved more than this limited greatness…. He could have been great under different stars, but he was born into a society whose definition of greatness is not accepted anywhere else, except in those societies and those minds dedicated to the same ideals of white security, white survival, and, inescapably, white supremacy, by whatever grand name they may be called." Paton recoils from a vision of evil and from a Christianity that accepts Dante's moral ferocity or Blake's observation that "He who loves his enemies betrays his friends, / That, surely, is not what Jesus intends."

Like his hero Jan Hofmeyer, Paton went from a pious childhood to adult life as a Christian without an intervening period of sophomoric skepticism at college to inoculate him with the doubt that marks much twentieth-century thinking. Paton's great move was from his Christadelphian home, through Methodism to the Anglican Church. The great intellectual influences on his life have come predominantly through personal relationships and, until he was in his forties, predominantly with white men. His thinking shows some effects of his distance from intellectual centers. Although the fame of Cry, the Beloved Country took Paton's vision to the world, it has not been easy for the world to enter Paton's vision. He mentions Hitler and World War II in biographies, but his imagination seems not to lead him to mention Auschwitz, Dresden or Hiroshima. He mentions a visit by Hofmeyer to India but says nothing of the country. He seems hardly to know of the change from colonial rule that marked so much of Africa and the rest of the world. Speaking to Harvard alurnni in 1971, he did not mention Vietnam. He did say that some in South Africa at that time took America's "tribulations" to be "due to your policies of racial integration." Kent State? Watergate? Cambodia? In the same speech Paton approved of American companies that invest in South Africa, because they "improve dramatically the salaries and other benefits of non-white employees." His trust is not in the direct economic effect of these policies, which have affected fewer than 1/2% of South Africa's black workers. His trust is in the "moral pressure" they exert on South African employers "to do the same."

A few years ago Paton published Towards the Mountain (1980), the first volume of a three-part autobiography. The themes of his fiction and other writing remain, but a new element enters his written voice, a directness and a renunciation of liturgical weight. There is revealed here a dry, quiet humor that must have been part of the person hidden in earlier writing. The work is remarkable for its lack of anger and bitterness and for the quiet, honest light it shines on childish stupidity and adult weakness. Paton does not spare himself and does not castigate himself. He accepts the fact that life is complicated and that even good people do not act as they would have thought they should. It is rare to read an autobiography so unassuming, unpretending and undeceived.

Paton turns eighty this year, and the world has now heard other writers from his country. What he did not see and would not say are clear. It is clear too that he has disdained the literary objectives of many other distinguished writers of the century. In current South African politics he has little place. In the tides of literary fashion his reputation is ebbing. But what enabled Paton's cry to find resonance in the hearts of millions of readers has not passed. What Paton calls faith, interviewers tend to call optimism. Paton rejects the word. He has never been an optimist. The prophetic imperative he spoke in 1948 remains the imperative. Now other voices have joined his to cry the beloved country.

Paton's images for what he mourns transcend his country. Some of them draw from universal, mythic wells of feeling: the lost paradise of earth, fertile as a garden received straight from the Creator's hand; the birds who sing there; the human life that is destroyed when its precious place is destroyed. What Paton cherishes also draws loyalty: the firmness of people who act from principle and not for show, the strength of those who endure suffering, the sweet dignity of daily acts performed for the sake of another, the goodness of water treated like wine. Paton's remains a voice to hear, a vision to regard.

Nicholas H. Z. Watts (essay date June 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "A Study of Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope," in Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXVI, No. 2, June, 1984, pp. 249-54.

[Below, Watts discusses the classical, epic, psychological, and religious dimensions of Too Late the Phalarope.]

The role of the White South African novelist is often assumed by outsiders to be primarily that of keeper of the national conscience. We may be surprised at the number of important writers—André Brink, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton and Laurens van der Post come quickly to mind—who have been nurtured in that beautiful and troubled land, but we expect their work to be, as it often is, a vehicle for social protest: fiction is one doorway to truth not yet quite closed in the blank wall of censorship.

Alan Paton's best known novel, the unforgettably compassionate Cry, the Beloved Country, is such a book. Published in 1948, its protest at the iniquities of apartheid has lasted well: it moves us still, sixteen years after the political party headed by its author was forced to disband rather than comply with the apartheid laws. Paton's latest novel, Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful also tells a story of the interwoven struggle of South African men and women to assert the dignity of the individual. It has an intensity of purpose that suggests the author has begun to despair of change. Too Late the Phalarope, another early work that was first published in 1955, is also a novel of protest. It matches the elegiac beauty and power of the earlier novel and the intensity of Paton's most recent one and deserves greater recognition than it has yet received.

The story is a simple one. The van Vlaanderens are a well established and conservative family in a small town deep in the heartland of the Afrikaaners. They are sober and religious, and the hopes of the family rest with the son Pieter. He is a promising police officer of considerable charm and presence, with an enviable war record behind him. His ability and the family connections should ensure his success. In the meantime he is achieving the pinnacle of fame in South Africa: he plays rugby for the Springboks. People say he will captain them. To complete the picture, he is married to the shy Nella and has two children whom he adores. This tranquil picture is shattered when Pieter becomes obsessed, against his will it seems, with a black girl, Stephanie. He is seen with her by a jealous subordinate, informed upon, arrested, tried and sent to prison. In that conservative environment, his shame spells the downfall of his family as well.

The nature of Pieter's downfall may be in doubt, but its inevitability is not, for the book opens with the words: "Perhaps I could have saved him … Perhaps I could have saved us all". Once Paton has assured us of the hero's ultimate fate he is free to concentrate on the cause of it and this is at the heart of the novel.

At first glance Pieter seems to have committed two wrongs. The first one is a moral wrong: he commits adultery with Stephanie in spite of the mutual love which he and Nella share. The second is a legal wrong: he breaks the fundamental rule of South African law and crosses the racial barrier. In the conservative religious environment that the book describes, either action appears sufficient to cause his destruction. But Paton appears not to think so. If the theme of the book is "a wife wronged", Nella plays a curiously remote part. Although they love each other, there is a distance between them which seems caused in part because Nella cannot easily keep pace with Pieter's development; "For he was the one that was like a god, not she". There is also a strong suggestion of sexual incompatibility:

She was frightened of Johannesburg, and of the evil things that men and women do, even of staying in an hotel. She was frightened even of the laughter that came out of the Royal Bar, where men like her father and brothers were jesting a little coarse and rough. Therefore when he in his extremity asked for more of her love, she shrank from him, thinking it was the coarseness of a man.

Later, when Nella goes to the coast with the children to visit her father, she exchanges letters with Pieter and he is more explicit:

And perhaps one day when you are convinced, and know that my love of your body is part of my love of you yourself, and when you are no longer afraid of it … I believe too that you would give me more sweetly of your body (I mean more sweetly than you do, which is almost enough already) not because you wished to be kind or suffer me, but because you too would wish to do so.

Nella's reply is loving but constrained, and "he sat and read her letter with a face of stone".

On the other hand, the story strongly suggests (even to someone unfamiliar with Paton's political viewpoint) that the colour bar is too arbitrary a law to justify the tragic tone of the book. The nature of the Afrikaaner who made the laws and of the Dutch Reformed Church which supported them are expressed in the character of Pieter's father, Jacob, and his attitudes are frequently contrasted unfavourably to those of Pieter, his mother and the narrative judgments of Tante Sophie. Moreover, this is not a story of someone who crosses the colour bar at the urging of an irresistible love, a Romeo pursuing his Capulet Juliet, but of Pieter drawn against his will into a furtive and unfulfilling relationship. Pieter is a victim, not a martyr.

Paton also takes pains to show that he is not concerned with a moral wrong. Very early in the book, Pieter apprehends a young rugby-playing friend running suspiciously after Stephanie in a dark side street. When he speaks to Dick later he is concerned only with the power of the law and the unforgiving nature of public opinion: "whether you're a Cabinet Minister or a predikant or a headmaster or a tramp, if you touch a black woman and you're discovered nothing'll save you … The court may give you a year, two years. But outside it's a sentence for life". This unmoralistic approach to the law on interracial relationships is explored further in the report of the farmer Smith who makes one of his servants pregnant and kills her to conceal the fact. His act is contrasted with the morality of the black race, "… who would have gone shamefaced to her father, to confess and make reparation as was their custom", and the climax of the story is not a moral judgment by Tante Sophie, who admits to confusion but an emphasis on the "great machinery of the law … this sudden manifestation of the certitude and majesty of the white man's law". This law, and the morality that created it, is summarized at the end of the novel in an exchange between the police Captain and Nella's father, who exclaims: "I would shoot him like a dog … he has offended against the race". The Captain replies: "as a policeman I know an offence against the law, and as a Christian I know an offence against God; but I do not know an offence against the race".

Paton uses the effects of the apartheid laws to explore issues of universal significance and he emphasises this universality by using both a dramatic structure and language that transcend the setting of the story. The novel carries very significant echoes of Greek tragic form and the language has the simplicity and repetitive devices of epic poetry or the phrases of the Bible. These emphasise that Pieter is threatened by some powerful and destructive inner force. Tante Sophie says he "shut the door of his soul [and] behind was a man in danger". The nature of this danger is the heart of the novel.

There are four elements that echo classical Greek tragedy. First, the classical authors wrote on well-known themes. Since the audience knew from the start what tragedy would unfold, they were free to concentrate on the dramatic skills and interpretative glosses of the playwright. Paton takes a contemporary and unknown theme but moves at once to reach the starting point of his classical counterpart: the inevitability of the tragic fall. He sustains dramatic tension from that notable first sentence, "Perhaps I could have saved him, with only a word, two words, out of my mouth"; by withholding the exact nature of the tragedy, adding touches of explanatory colour rather as an artist might sketch the outlines of his picture before he starts to paint.

Secondly, the book also enjoys in large measure the classical unities of time, place and action, for it is a retrospective novel set in a small Boer township. It is written (except for the final page) in the past tense to underscore the inevitability (though not the finality) of the destruction. The story is related by Pieter's aunt, Tante Sophie, so that the main vehicle of the plot is the narrative of an onlooker: this sense of the onlooker who sees what others fail to notice, but who is powerless to change the course of events, helps build the claustrophobic atmosphere within which Pieter feels himself trapped.

The role of Tante Sophie is the third echo of classical form. She is an elderly woman, and her deformity of a harelip means that she has never married. She thus has a sexless quality which is reminiscent of the old and hermaphrodite prophet, Teiresias. Her perception is intuitive. Of Teiresias it is said: "In your heart, if not with the eye, you see our city's condition". Tante Sophie says:

Yet because I am apart, being disfigured, and not like other women, yet because in my heart I am like any other woman, and because I am part, so living apart and watching I have learned to know the meaning of unnoticed things.

She does not know what is the matter with Pieter until the moment when she encounters him in the kitchen with Stephanie and then her knowledge is intuitive: "for now suddenly, and it unwanted, I found what I had searched for all these years". It is clear from the context that she sees beyond the dangerous but technical illegality of a relationship between black and white. Instead, she sees the unconscious forces that push relentlessly against the shores of Pieter's conscious world and, though broken again and again by habit and discipline, build into new and more dangerous waves. Like Teiresias, Tante Sophie has the inner intuitive vision but, also like him, she is rejected by those who fear the implications of her knowledge.

Finally, Pieter is also a classical figure; one of heroic proportions. He is highly talented and seems to those around him to have a classical balance and proportion. He is loving but austere; passionate but aloof; able but modest; strict but compassionate and just. Paton develops these qualities so that he seems uniformly excellent except for his one flaw and the black mood, the swartgalligheid, which assails him. His heroic stamp is enhanced by the language used in the last days before his fall. He has indeed been selected as captain of the Springboks—a position of God-like authority to the Boers—and, as Agamemnon was "sacker of Troy", so Pieter is "the Lion of the North".

If we look for a classical antecedent, however, it is not to be found in the story of Antigone, although there appears to be a parallel in her struggle to reconcile personal honour with the unbending rule of the State. The true parallel is with the Bacchae of Euripides which explores the influence of the unconscious personified in the form of Dionysus (the god who can inspire a person but from whose rejection springs madness).

Before examining the way in which Paton develops this study of the unconscious mind, we should first establish how he came to choose such an unusual title for the book. Why select the phalarope, a bird which is only rarely seen ashore in South Africa on its migratory passage? At one level, the answer is straightforward. Pieter has boldly given his father a book about South African birds—boldly because his father "read only the One, and the newspapers". Jacob is delighted by the present despite the unpromising fact that the author is an Englishman and not an Afrikaaner, and he is especially pleased when he discovers an apparent error in it. To prove it, he promises a picnic near the coast to show Pieter the phalarope. At the picnic, Jacob sees the bird and

because the son could not see, the father went and stood behind him, rested his arm on the son's shoulder, and pointed at the bird. But the son could see no bird, for he was again moved in some deep place within, and something welled up within him that if not mastered could have burst out of his throat and mouth, making him a girl or a child.

The phalarope is one of the very few birds in which the traditional roles of male and female are reversed. Once the female has laid the eggs they are incubated by the male who rears the young. The female is, unusually, the more colourful of the pair and determines their territory. The bird is therefore a vivid image of the development of characteristics predominantly associated with the instinctive behaviour patterns of the opposite sex. Furthermore, the bird is associated with the shore and its movement between sea and land symbolises the movement of ideas between the conscious mind and the subconscious, for which the sea is an enduring symbol.

So the title prepares us for a novel that examines the polarities of human existence within the framework of a Jungian psychology. It is a book about the importance of a man respecting and developing the "feminine" qualities within himself, such as the emotions, intuition and imagination (and, similarly, for a woman, her masculine qualities such as reason, control and discipline). Tante Sophie seems to realise that this is the heart of the issue on the first page of the book when she observes that:

His father was a giant of a man, and the boy grew as tall and broad as he; but the boy Pieter had something of the woman in him, and the father none at all until it was too late.

Paton characteristically enters a quiet warning against taking the book as an excessively simplistic argument in favour of living out all one's subconscious desires. Pieter has been attracted by Stephanie for some time before he breaks the law by having a sexual relationship with her. When he does, it is after an evening when he has been drinking (most unusually) with his cousin Anna and when he "knew that he had drunk too much. But he did not care, for the world was good and happy, and the black mood of the day seemed foolishness, and he was full of power".

The language has a lapidary quality, but also a warmth, that makes this a book for the ear as well as for the eye. The language constantly mirrors the structure of the novel and throws back light on to the development of the plot. A striking feature is the use of repetition. It is used in three ways.

First, repetition is used to give emphasis to a word. The most effective example of this is when Sophie sets the scene and explains why she is telling the story. She writes with a determined purpose:

… it is not only that [these events] trouble my mind … nor is it only that men may have more knowledge of compassion. For I remember the voice that came to John in Patmos … Therefore I set aside my fears and am obedient.

She cannot understand God's ways: "small strength, small weakness, that I understand; but why a man should have great strength and weakness I do not understand …" She expresses this perplexity by a constant repetition of the word "strange". This word is used casually in everyday English, and at first glance it seems that this repetitious use of the word reflects the narrow imagination of a woman who probably received no formal education. But the repetition—seven times in the opening three pages—gives the word a prominence that demands a more forceful meaning. Given the classical awareness which the structure of the novel seems to demonstrate, the word may be used with some of the force which its Greek counterpart, deinos, held. The earlier uses of deinos carry the meanings of "fearful" and "powerful" (either for good or ill). It is the characteristic adjective for Dionysus, who inspires men but from whose rejection springs madness. Tante Sophie's language suggests that the power that Pieter had over her from childhood, and her inability to speak out to avert disaster, were more than curiosities of behaviour: they were the strange manifestations of unconscious forces which had been denied their natural, untrammelled expression. At the same time, almost with an ironic awareness of her language, she uses the word in its most casual sense, but in a context that reveals how fully she understands the nuances of English as well as her native Afrikaans:

Strange is it that one could run crying to the house of a man that one loved, to save him from danger … And strange it is that one should withdraw, silent and shamed … and because of the power he held over me, I held, in the strange words of the English, I held my peace … There were strange things in the boy's mind that none of us knew or understood … One could not tell whether [Pieter's father] were proud and pleased or angry, for the truth was that he had fathered a strange son, who had his father's will and strength and could ride and outshoot them all, yet had all the gentleness of a girl, and strange unusual thoughts in his mind … and [of his mother] the black moods and the coldness, the gentleness and the tenderness, the shooting and the riding and the books, the strange authority, she pondered them all in her heart …

Repetition is also used in the manner of epic poetry to emphasise key characteristics and to give a sense of universality. Thus, Pieter is first described as "the bravest and gentlest of them all" and these words, separately or more often together, are frequently used to describe him. His father is often described as a lion. On his birthday, when his daughter kissed him, "he growled like a lion", and at the picnic "we packed him in with rugs, for he was still weak from the influenza … and it was like packing a lion into the car, for he growled and threw his head about just as a lion does".

Paton uses repetition in a third way: to express the way a person's mind can be obsessed by a single idea. When Pieter acknowledges the attraction that Stephanie holds for him, and has made love to her, he is filled with guilt and fear of discovery and the narrative tells us again and again how he "vowed and prayed" that he might resist her in future, and escape discovery.

The author uses a simple symbolism that is more accessible than that of the title to develop further the universality of the tragedy. Tante Sophie recalls the end of the picnic:

So we drove back to Venterspan when the sun was almost down, and the world was filled with beauty and terror. And darkness came down over the grass country, and over the continent of Africa, and over man's home and the earth, and over us all. And the sun went down, and never rose again.

Finally, the language is full of biblical echoes, as befits a story told by a woman for whom the Bible was almost her only reading and attendance at church a major occupation (she calculates that she had heard "three thousand sermons, and could have heard five thousand, except that at Buitenverwagting we had to travel far, and went to church only in the mornings").

The book is thus structured around three parallel dynamics. Classical form underlies the more flexible form of the novel; an epic universality underlies the small-town particulars; and the unconscious mind underlies and influences the conscious mind. Each of these dynamics sheds light upon the tensions that underlie Boer society and make it so resistant to change and progress.

There is another dynamic that is central to Paton's theme: religion. Jacob's is legalistic in form and is essentially a non-redemptive creed. It is "a matter for obedience and not for tears". He reads mainly from the Old Testament, using it as a touchstone for his judgement. He uses the Bible as the ledger where all family events of consequence are entered. As we have seen, he scores out Pieter's name as though that act alone can confirm the legitimacy of his rejection. In the end, however, his narrow faith cannot support him and he dies "bowed over the Book of Job".

Tante Sophie's faith is more generous and her references are more often to the New Testament. She writes "and I too, having lived this story in grief and passion, close it in some kind of peace, remembering God's mercy, Who gave us all such friends". Earlier on, she cannot accept the retributive attitude of the whole community towards the wretched Smith. She compares the words of Christ to other writings urging obedience to the law and although she admits to some confusion she concludes on a note of compassion: "yet I grieved for the man in my heart, that did such evil because he was in terror". This, as well as her inability to condemn Pieter, is in sharp contrast to her brother who read about Smith's case "with a face of anger and revulsion".

Pieter's mother represents a yet further move beyond the constraints of the Dutch Reformed Church and this is made clear early in the book by the unmistakable echo of St. Luke's gospel as she watches her son's different moods and the strange authority: "she pondered them all in her heart…". She also works fearlessly, with her son, among the black people during a smallpox epidemic. She appears only rarely in the book and at first she appears a minor character. Yet it is her standards against which most of the actions in the book are assayed. We never learn her name, so that she is both Pieter's mother and a representative of a universal feminine nature. Whereas at the end of the book Jacob dies defeated, the others survive, "borne on the deep river of this woman's love, that sustained us all".

Within this framework that compares two strong faiths, one grounded in the Old and one in the New Testament, Paton explores the relationship between Pieter and Tante Sophie. It has been a complex one since he was a child. Sophie refers to it on the opening page of the novel and later describes it in terms which convey an astonishing relationship between a young child and a mature woman:

I took him in my arms, with all the passion of a hungry woman that would have had this child if God had given her one … Then he stiffened in my arms and looked away from me, as though there was something of which he was ashamed. And the passion went out of me and I was afraid … And from that day he had the power over me.

The importance of this passage is reinforced by the moment when she recalls it; when Pieter for an instant "opened the door of his soul". His power lies in his dark gift for self control, the withholding of himself, which quenches her passion (the word is typically thrust into prominence in this key paragraph by repetition). He is unable to respond to her love and expresses it in behavioural terms by looking away from her. This is an early demonstration of the deep similarities between Pieter and his father, similarities we tend to overlook because of the emphatic differences between them. But Sophie had asserted on the opening page of the book that "he and his father both had the power over me". Later we learn of Jacob that "that was a habit of his, to start to leave a room, and then to stop and to talk with his back turned". Nowhere is this unwillingness to see the true meaning in the eyes of others more obvious than when, after Pieter's arrest, his mother says that she must go to him. Jacob stopped "and without turning he said to her 'you must do what you wish, but if you once go out of this house you shall not enter it again'."

The corrosive effect on Pieter of being unable to respond, of being unable to free his unconscious urges from the twin shackles of society and his own consciousness, is revealed in the intense guilt he feels when he sees the note left by his friend Japie as a joke: "I saw you". This phrase, in its present tense, is the traditional greeting amongst the Zulus, one of the main black races subjected to apartheid, and it is a greeting that acknowledges and respects the identity of the other. Pieter's reaction is a measure of how far apart he has drifted from those around him. He is unable to see the real love of those around him; instead he feels slighted by his father and sees the possessiveness of Sophie's love and the shortcomings of Nella's shy offering rather than the warmth and commitment that underlie them all, albeit so deeply in the case of his father that it is almost hidden. He is also unable to see himself as others do and is conscious only of the "black mood" and the desperate acts to which it drives him.

There is no suggestion in Pieter's relationship with Stephanie that they meet on any conscious level at all; his conscious efforts indeed are spent on resisting her. He seeks a fulfilment that cannot be found there. The social constraints make their meetings furtive and guilt-ridden. The imagery reflects this: they meet in darkness, upon waste ground amongst the rank smell of the Kakiebos weed. The several voices of his reason, his faith and his social code tell him that his search will never end in these secretive encounters. It is as though he acts despite these warnings because it is the only course left open to him and it is thus a measure of his despair.

In these meetings there is the same layering of meaning which pervades the whole book; the meeting of white and black; of the conscious mind with the unconscious; the altruistic giver who gives everything except himself and the instinctive sharer who gives herself, having nothing else to give. The blackness is the dark of the night, of his own fear, and of the Afrikaaners' suppression (transposed on to the black races) of the dark forces that they cannot so easily quell in the apartheid of their own souls. Only once does Tante Sophie uncharacteristically misjudge Pieter, when she sees him as a man who "could now afford to come out from his armour, it being complete", but she chooses a military metaphor that is so clearly absurd that it highlights the falseness of her premise. Pieter's armour can never be a complete protection, for it guards him against the wrong threat. He will not be safe until he can hold the feminine qualities within him in balance with his own masculine characteristics and those of the culture in which he lives.

Much of the tragedy centres on the fact that, while he might be able to reach this balance in different surroundings, (for he respects the dichotomy in himself,) the society he lives in prevents it. His attraction to Stephanie is rooted in his admiration for the fierce, instinctive pride of motherhood which she shows towards her child and which is in sharp contrast to Jacob who can dismiss his son from his heart with that single, ritualistic and highly conscious act: striking Pieter's name from the flyleaf of the great Bible.

Paton's message in Cry, the Beloved Country was concerned primarily with the suffering inflicted by apartheid on the Black people of South Africa. The emphasis in Too Late the Phalarope is different. Stephanie is the only black character, and she does indeed suffer; she is imprisoned and deprived of her child because she brews illicit liquor to support her mother whom no one else would help. But it is the suffering of the white Afrikaaners on which Paton concentrates. He argues that Pieter's weakness is inseparably bound up with the repression of the spirit which is inherent in the rigid codes of apartheid. By dominating the Black races, the Afrikaaners are repressing vital forces in their own souls and they thus destroy not the blacks, but themselves. If even the "bravest and the gentlest" can be struck down, how can there be any hope for the proponents of the system, such as Jacob?

At the end of the book, Pieter is in prison while his mother, Nella and Sophie wait for his release and the limited hopes of a new start. Pieter's younger brother Frans now lives in the family home with his wife. Their son, Koos, had always admired Pieter and on the final page Sophie hints that the pattern of repression may be about to repeat itself: "The boy Koos is tall and dark, and seems to have some special mark of solitariness". And the pattern is already being repeated in other families: "Yet my grief can still come back when I read of some tragic man who has broken the iron law".

Despite these two warnings, the last pages are written with a clear sense of hopefulness. Jacob dies, and after the funeral his wife reads the diary in which Pieter has recorded his version of events. Then, as Tante Sophie wonders about the future, she writes for the first time in the present tense, giving the reader a powerful sense that at last the mould of inevitability has been broken. That hope is very fragile. Pieter and Nella will have to go abroad to rebuild their lives and nothing has changed in South Africa to make life easier for the solitary Koos. The hope is confined to the hearts of the main actors of this tragedy. They have been brought face to face with the logical conclusion of the "old" ways: the Old Testament religion, the iron law, the social pattern that exemplifies the inner determination to subdue the feminine spirit. Through the suffering that Pieter brings on his family, and through the lead given by his mother, they have some hope of finding more balanced lives. Tragically late though it is, they have seen the phalarope.

This, Paton's finest novel, thus operates with great success on several levels. It is a convincing story of crime and punishment. It is a strong study of individuals who, despite their pronounced characteristics, are always more than stereotypes. As a psychological novel, it is a powerful depiction of the corrosive effect of guilt and the destructive power of a repressed subconscious and it provides a lively model of Jung's understanding of the human spirit. In this respect it uses South Africa as an allegory for the path of western culture. And it turns out to be what we perhaps first expected: a devastating critique of apartheid and the spirit that underlies it. Paton's commitment to social justice and compassion, which rise so movingly from the pages of Cry, the Beloved Country here find such unity of composition, such austerity of expression, such integrity of faith and such universal meaning that Too Late the Phalarope stands as an exceptional book both in comparison with Paton's distinguished peers and within the wider context of recent literature.

William Minter (review date 20 November 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Moderate to a Fault?," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 36.

[In the review below, Minter outlines the major events of Paton's life covered in Journey Continued.]

For four decades, Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country has given millions their first glimpses of the human tragedy of South African racism. Its simple eloquence leaves few unmoved. Appropriately, it forms the hinge between the two volumes of Paton's autobiography.

Towards the Mountain, which was published in 1980, recounted Paton's conversion from the white racist paternalism he had accepted until his mid-30's. Between 1941 and 1943 he sat on an Anglican commission on South African society that consisted of 31 whites and two blacks. From his fellow commissioners and others associated with the liberal Institute of Race Relations, Paton gained a vision. "I was no longer a white person but a member of the human race."

On leave from his position as director of a reformatory for African boys, Paton was inspired to write Cry, the Beloved Country. Its publication in 1948 transformed him overnight into South Africa's most celebrated writer. He was then 45 years old. Journey Continued takes up his story at this point, with his reactions to fame and to the election that year of the Afrikaner-based National Party, which advocated an intensification of the country's system of white racial dominance, using as a slogan, "apartheid" ("apartness").

Journey Continued maintains the clear writing style, the attention to detail and the candor of Paton's earlier works. It discusses South African politics, as well as his family, friends and life as a writer. Yet there is no strong theme comparable to the first volume's vision of a journey toward the holy mountain of justice.

Paton carries the narrative to 1968, with a brief epilogue on the two decades before his death on April 12 this year. One major topic is his leading role in the Liberal Party, which from 1953 to 1968 worked within the white electoral system for racial equality.

His principal literary project during this period was the biography of Jan Hofmeyr, the moderate Afrikaner politician who died in 1948, shortly after his party lost to the hardline Nationalists.

Paton's participation in the Liberal Party, he makes clear, came from moral duty, not from any expectation that the majority of whites would respond. Duty also motivated his decision to testify for political prisoners in the 1950's, even though he rejected the politics of the African National Congress as too radical. He also never participated in the nonviolent resistance campaigns of the time. His vision of change was "to persuade white South Africa to share its power, for reasons of justice and survival."

His heroes were all white: men like Hofmeyr and Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton, whose biography Paton published in 1973. Like Paton, Clayton was eventually impelled to denounce racial injustice, but often seemed as disturbed by intemperate protest as by the system itself.

One of the most revealing passages in Journey Continued deals with the young members of the Liberal Party who, in the tumult of the 1960's, joined a clumsy sabotage campaign against the Government, causing the accidental death of a 77-year-old white woman. Paton's deep revulsion at this act contrasts strikingly with his description of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which verges on an apologia for the policemen who killed 69 black protesters.

Such glimpses make some sense of Paton's otherwise puzzling political stance of later years, when he found it easier to praise President P. W. Botha's willingness to reform than to accept Bishop Desmond Tutu's call for economic pressures against the apartheid regime. Although Paton refers several times to the mellowing of his outrage against apartheid, his political views probably changed little from his initial conversion in the 1940's.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, the black pastor expresses the fear that "when they turn to loving they will find we are turned to hating." Paton, it seems, found it impossible to listen with openness instead of fear to the new black voices of the 1960's, 70's or 80's. In the end, nevertheless, he will be remembered not for that fear, but for his cry for justice that continues to echo today.

Myrtle Hooper (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Paton and the Silence of Stephanie," in English Studies Africa, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1989, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Hooper investigates the function and effects of Stephanie's "silence" in Too Late the Phalarope.]

In every story there is a silence, some sight concealed, some word unspoken, I believe.

                            [J. M. Coetzee, Foe]

I think it might be safe to describe the affiliations of Alan Paton as liberal and humanist, and his endeavour as a writer of fiction as realist and didactic. Certainly in Too Late the Phalarope his concern is to investigate the implications of an "iron law" for the lives of individual people, and to demonstrate its destructive effect. Yet, in the voicelessness of Stephanie, the story contains a "silence", the functioning and effects of which I would like to investigate.

In Too Late the Phalarope Paton sets up a narrative frame behind which his own position may be veiled: he has Sophie—and less importantly the captain—to speak for him. Sophie's character is quite carefully developed. She is physically deformed, hence has never married, hence remains something of an outsider even within the socially important and emotionally close-knit Afrikaner family to which she belongs. She says of herself,

Yet because I am apart, being disfigured, and not like other women, yet because in my heart I am like any other woman, and because I am apart, so living apart and watching I have learned to know the meaning of unnoticed things, of a pulse that beats suddenly, and a glance that moves from here to there because it wishes to rest on some quite other place.

She has quite definite opinions about matters such as the Smith case, but these are moderated by a perspective on human nature which is sympathetic and accommodating to experiences such as that of Maria Duvenage. She is able to draw connections that do not isolate or condemn, and in general she avoids making judgements. Yet her attachment to her nephew is excessive, as he knows; in his terms, she desires to "possess him". If the novel is a tragic one, the tragedy is hers as it is Pieter's: it is her life that is "at the turn", and it is she who is deprived of the peace she anticipates with age. So her act of narration is an attempt to regain that peace, as well as an attempt to render the interiority of Pieter to those who would judge and condemn him. She says …,

And if I write it down, maybe it will cease to trouble my mind. And if I write it down, people may know that he was two men, and that one was brave and gentle; and they may know, when they judge and condemn, that this one struggled with himself in darkness and alone, calling on his God and on the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on him.

Yet Sophie fairly frequently steps into her narrative to comment on the action and events she is describing. She acts in the role that Robyn Warhol has termed an "engaging narrator":

Using narrative interventions that are almost always spoken in earnest, such a narrator addresses a 'you' that is intended to evoke recognition and identification in the person who holds the book and reads, even if the 'you' in the text resembles that person only slightly or not at all.

A case in point is her description, with its built-in judgement, of the consummation of the relationship between Pieter and Sophie. She says, "And there, God forgive him, he possessed her". Another instance occurs … when, in making her disclaimers about judgement, Sophie foregrounds the act of judging: if she claims the characters cannot be judged she indicates at least that larger social units must be. At points like these the veil slips, and the writer behind the narrator steps forward to speak to his readers.

Although the narrative is predominantly Sophie's, Pieter is allowed to speak for himself through the diaries to which she gains access, and out of which she recreates the course of events. He is given, in other words, a voice. The first time we hear this voice is in the comment he makes in Afrikaans after his encounter with Dick, "O God wees hom genadig. Here Jesus wees hom genadig", and "O God wees my genadig. Here Jesus wees my genadig". These words anticipate and predict the confessional nature of the diary entries. Significantly, the first of these entries is given immediately after his encounter with Stephanie in the kloof. If Sophie is endeavouring, as I claimed earlier, to render the interiority of Pieter to those who would judge and condemn him, then giving his reaction at this point is clearly crucial.

To serve her function in the plot Stephanie is equipped with certain attributes. In contrast to Pieter she is uneducated, hence illiterate, hence keeps no diary. Besides the 'black woman's burden' of two indigent relatives whom she supports single handed and with unquestioned acceptance, she has no family, as Pieter has, to sustain or morally circumscribe her. Her father and her mother are unknown, as is the father of her child. She has "a good deal of lightness in her colour", and, caught as she is in a cycle of unemployment, poverty and 'crime', her social contacts seem to be limited to random sexual encounters. Sophie says of her, "It's a lost creature … that will go with any man that comes …". Yet her evident amorality is qualified by a powerful 'maternal imperative'. Sophie remarks how "she has a passion for that child", and says later, "I saw that she was like a tigress for the child". This attachment is the key to her integrity, and to her relationship with Pieter. It is also the key to her 'career' which includes collisions with the law and, ultimately, with Japie and the Women's Welfare. (It is harshly ironic that in passing her "gentle sentence" on Stephanie, Pieter's mother effectively passes sentence on her son.)

Perhaps Stephanie's most significant quality, however, is knowledge. It is this that sets her in contrast with Pieter's wife Nella, who is shocked into knowledge "by the hard hand of Fate … only after we had been destroyed". Pieter's question to Stephanie when she comes to ask him "to tell the Government" she has found work is, "how did you know [I would do it for you]?" Soon after, when she comes to his house:

she smiled at me, and the mad sickness that I hate and fear came over me, and she knew it, it being one of the things that she understands

If she has knowledge it is not such as to take away her innocence, however. Her habitual expression is a combination of smile and frown, and Sophie says of her, "she had a queer look of innocence also, though she was no stranger to those things which are supposed to put an end to innocence".

I said above that Stephanie is equipped with these attributes so as to serve her function in the plot. What is this function? I would like to identify it indirectly by assessing her impact on Pieter: by comparing Pieter as he is at the start of the novel with Pieter as he is at the end, and by considering his reactions to the relationship as it develops.

Pieter is described as a boy by Sophie as

a strange son, who had all his father's will and strength, and could outride and outshoot them all, yet had all the gentleness of a girl … Had he been one or the other, I think his father would have understood him better, but he was both.

And growing out of this, he becomes "two men":

The one was the soldier of the war, with all the English ribbons that his father hated; the lieutenant in the police, second only to the captain; the great rugby player hero of thousands of boys and men. The other was the dark and silent man, hiding from all men his secret knowledge of himself, with that hardness and coldness that made men afraid of him, afraid even to speak to him.

Other critics have examined Pieter's relationship with his father as more and less significant for his relationship with Stephanie. For my purposes, his motives in entering into this relationship are less important than the effect it has upon him, which is to strengthen, not to trigger, the tendency in his nature towards schism. Hence I must, in passing, take issue with Ian Glenn's claim, that

All of Tante Sophie's portentous division of the selves of Pieter boils down, it seems, to the description of a man whose marriage is sexually unfulfilling in the most obvious physical way.

After his arrest, Pieter's mother provides confirmation that Pieter's conflicts predate both marriage and acquaintance with Stephanie: "… from the years of childhood she had feared for him, and had known that he was hiding away, in some deep place within, things that no man might safely conceal".

… [After] seeing (and touching) Stephanie in the kloof, Pieter writes as follows:

If it shocked me to see myself, it shocked me no less to see my danger. It was like a kind of shadow of myself, that moved with me constantly, but always apart from me; I knew it was there, but I had known it so long that it did not trouble me, so long as it stayed apart. But when the mad sickness came on me, it would suddenly move nearer to me, and I knew it would strike me down if it could, and I did not care.

This archetypal formulation is interesting, as John Cooke has pointed out. Desire for Stephanie is "mad sickness"; but "mad sickness" is not what threatens him. What threatens is his "danger", which has been with him over a long period of time, and which thus predates Stephanie. This danger is like "a shadow" of himself which moves closer when he succumbs to desire for Stephanie and threatens to strike him down. This perception should be enough to dismiss as misplaced Pieter's quest for safety in his wife's love. The "danger" is a part of himself, suppressed, projected outwards, and associated with desire for Stephanie. Yet, as my students have pointed out to me, "Pieter is looking for something he doesn't get, even from Stephanie. Stephanie is not an object of desire because she doesn't satisfy him."

His comment after their first sexual encounter is thus illuminating.

In those twelve hours the whole world had changed, because of one insensate act. And what madness made a man pursue something so unspeakable, deaf to the cries of wife and children and mother and friends and blind to their danger, to grasp one unspeakable pleasure that brought no joy, ten thousand of which pleasures were not worth one of the hairs of their heads? Such desire could not surely be a desire of the flesh, but some mad desire of a sick and twisted soul. And why should I have it? And where did it come from? And how did one cure it? But I had no answers to these questions.

He cannot expect to, because his pleasure is "unspeakable"—in more than one sense. In his earlier interrogation of Dick, Pieter asked four times why he "did it". Dick could only answer "I don't know". Pieter, likewise, cannot verbalise his desire for Stephanie in terms other than those his society supplies: and these are imprecise and extremely hostile.

What he is able to predict, and with some accuracy, is the effect that discovery would have on him.

It would seem to me that every act, every word, every gesture, would fit only and could fit only into the pattern of my offence; that every reasonable man would see it, and I being also reasonable could not deny it.

And if I denied what they could see to be the truth, then something within me would be broken, and I would cry out, or break down and weep, or something within me would break, so that they, knowing that I had never been so before, would know beyond doubt that I lied.

He acknowledges how tenuous is his hold on secrecy. If once a minute piece of evidence leads to his exposure then the pattern of events will reveal itself as the only reasonable explanation. It is 'their' discovery of his actions that he foresees leading to the breakdown of "something within" him.

After his final encounter with Stephanie, "he bathed himself from head to foot, trembling with the secret knowledge of the abject creature that was himself". This knowledge is distinguished from his earlier "knowledge of himself" in bringing humility and gentleness to his dealings with his wife, his aunt, and his children.

Then he sat alone by the fire, and the thought, the hope, came to him that this strange mood of humility and gentleness might be some turning point, and that this perhaps might be the finding of that which was sought, and the opening of the door that was knocked on.

As I see it, this is precisely what it is: he finds what he sought, the door is opened. After the exposure he has foreseen, he is rescued from suicide by Kappie, and once in Kappie's house he breaks down. Sophie and the captain arrive to overhear him,

… saying that he was cleansed, once and for ever, and that this blow that had struck him down had cleansed him for ever, but why must a man be struck down to be cleansed, and why could not the man who had struck him down have warned him, for by this very warning he would have been cleansed for ever, and why could not God have warned him, and why must God strike him down so utterly, and why must the innocent also be struck down, and why and why and why.

His protest contains a moving if indirect indictment of the system which has brought him to tragedy. Yet his questions are surely rhetorical. He has in fact been "warned"—three times if one counts the examples of Dick and of Smith, and Japie's note saying "I saw you". He has at least once broken the law "of his own will and choice". He has known all along the consequences of his actions, and predicted his own response to them, as I have shown. His rhetorical questions underline how in fact "a man must be struck down to be cleansed", if by "a man" he refers to himself. His formulation is still couched in the terms available to him: if he has been suffering from a "mad sickness" he has now been "cleansed", and the catharsis which has "cleansed" him is his exposure.

For Sophie his outcry confirms that he has "been destroyed". But the last word must surely be that of the other voice which veils and at times reveals Paton's. The captain comments as follows on Sophie's reluctance to give the diaries to Nella:

You surely don't think, mejuffrou, that some other woman could save him? And if you are thinking, she couldn't help before, don't you see this is quite another man?

From the two men whom he was Pieter has become one man, "quite another man". The transformation is effected by his relationship with Stephanie, and by its public exposure.

I have noted above that, if anyone's, the novel is Sophie's and Pieter's. Yet I would like to examine in more detail the narrative treatment Stephanie receives, because, as outlined, her defining characteristics are largely given by her function in the plot, and because, in contrast to Pieter, these defining characteristics act to prevent a sense of interiority. Her social and moral isolation, her knowledge and innocence, her smiling and frowning, make her an enigmatic figure: and the enigma she presents to Pieter generates a response on his part that is morally ambiguous and inadequate. As a prominent and respected member of his community, as a policeman, is he not simply exploiting someone weaker than himself, disadvantaged, and voiceless? If it is Stephanie who is manipulating him then is he not collaborating in this abuse, instead of carrying out his "duty"? If he does 'love' her, then why does he not care for her, or even get to know her better than he does?

In the kloof this interchange takes place:

—I'm here, called the lieutenant, the girl's here too.

Baas.

—Yes.

—Can I see the child before I go?

—Yes.

The smile of irresponsibility left her face, changing it and surprising him.

Dis my enigste kind, it's my only child, she said.

She was filled with some hurt pride of possession, so that he, knowing her life, wondered at it.

—It's my only child, she said, and looked down at the ground again, waiting hopelessly. He, feeling pity for her, was suddenly purged of the sickness of his mind, and stood up and put on his cap.

Paton treats with sympathetic humour the power of her sexual effect on him and its implications for his official position. Earlier, "he, shaking with shame, went and sat on a stone, and took off his cap and wiped his brow, hot and cold and trembling". Yet what Pieter's gestures underline, significantly, is how pity for her as a mother is able to vanquish desire for her as a woman. In pitying her he is "purged of the sickness of his mind". Because the terms of his perception of her are socially prescribed for him he does not see or respond to her whole. The money he gives her later seems less a payment for services rendered than a vague benevolence to someone suffering hardship, as is the loan he makes to young Vorster. Yet (again as my students have pointed out) "if she is his mistress he doesn't look after her very well". Perhaps it is such a disjunction in expectations that leads Stephanie finally to pass "sentence" on him and become involved in his entrapment. But her motives are left unclear, since even here Paton refrains from passing judgment on her. Her words are quoted to Pieter at his arrest but the details of her collaboration with Sergeant Steyn are not revealed, and she is effectively removed from the action after Pieter's last contact with her. This narrative protection from judgement serves to prevent a sense of her interiority.

There are, however, three points at which Stephanie seems to me to transcend the closure of her character. After the first court case we witness, at which she learns she may lose her child if she continues to brew liquor, she surprises Sophie into empathy and a sense of maternal community.

She did not smile any more. She left the dock and followed the policeman to the door, but half way there she halted, as though she would not go, as though something must be done or be said, as though it were unbelievable that her offences, for which she had been willing to pay without complaint, should suddenly threaten her with such a consequence. She turned and looked at me and my nephew as though she would say something to us, but she knew that she could not do such a thing in a court.

So then she went out.

—It's a lost creature, I said, that will go with any man that comes, but she has a passion for that child …

—Perhaps even as your mother and I had a passion for a child.

Of course, even this event is functional in revealing Sophie's relative enlightenment. Yet her speculations and interpretations here are for once able to convey something of Stephanie's inner feelings.

The last time Pieter goes to Stephanie it is to give her the money she has requested "to make a case". Of course, we have just had Sophie observe her leaving the court "not like one on whom sentence is passed, but like one who passes it". Of course, it is this encounter which entraps Pieter, despite the relief and optimism which her ironic "this other case will also be for the child" inspires in him. These things he cannot know; yet he does recognise in her a sense of intention. He comments afterwards,

And it was my purpose, made in prayer, to keep the law. And it was her purpose, for what reason I did not know, to break the law. And I carried out her purpose, and not my own which was made in prayer.

Alerted as we have been, we are conscious here of Stephanie exerting her will to shape the course of events.

In analysing Paton's use of landscape, John Cooke has observed how Paton gives to Pieter's encounter with Stephanie in the kloof a pastoral and lyric force, and how this animates his memories of childhood. He observes,

Prior to his first confrontation with her, Pieter is clearly attempting to recapture a childhood world in which separation from such qualities [feminineness, gentleness] was not demanded.

Pieter's own description goes further.

… and why and why, why no one knew, it was the nature of man and of creation, that some sound, long remembered from the days of innocence before the world's corruption, could open the door of the soul, flooding it with a sudden knowledge of the sadness and terror and beauty of man's home and the earth.

His associations are with Eden, with the lost world of innocence before the fall, before the door to the soul was shut and knowledge excluded. Given this, his encounter with Stephanie carries the added weight of biblical allusion, and makes her flight from him an act of enticement and temptation as well as one of escape.

But seemingly she did not want to ride, for suddenly she had fled by a little path at the side of the fall, that came to another, with no way up except over the rocks of the fall itself, green and slippery. He followed her at leisure, and came to where she was standing.

—Why did you do that, he asked.

She made him no answer, except to smile in her strange and secret way. Then she heard the sound of the men above, and drew back. And as she drew back, she touched him. And he did not move.

He did not move, neither forward nor back, nor did she. It was all silent but for the sounds of the men above, and for his breathing and the racing of his heart. Then she turned round and smiled at him again, briefly, and moved forward an inch or two, standing still with her eyes on the ground; while he, shaking with shame, went and sat on a stone, and took off his cap and wiped his brow, hot and cold and trembling.

She runs from Pieter so that he may pursue her. She initiates physical contact; she breaks it off. She retains her composure. Pieter does not: his response to her leaves him trembling and perspiring. Sophie's description of the consummation this looks forward to is, "he possessed her". It is inaccurate. Pieter may 'possess' Stephanie physically, he may 'know' her biblically: but never longer than transiently. Stephanie may be allowed to 'transcend' her character at points such as these, but ultimately Pieter cannot reach her because she is closed to him as she is to the reader of her story.

The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.

So says Susan Barton in J. M. Coetzee's Foe. In this novel, consciousness is located within the character, and the attempt made by the character's self is to reach outside its consciousness. Susan Barton says,

The story of Friday's tongue is a story unable to be told, or unable to be told by me. That is to say, many stories can be told of Friday's tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday, who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.

In his paper on the novel, Paul Williams asks, "How then are Susan and Foe going to get Friday's story? By making him speak or by speaking on his behalf?" Friday cannot be made to speak because his tongue has been cut out and the world he inhabits is one of silence. And neither Susan nor Foe is willing to speak on his behalf.

In contrast to Friday Stephanie has a tongue; yet she has no voice. Paton neither makes Stephanie speak, nor speaks, to any great extent, on her behalf. This could be because he is not aware of her silence. Yet in Cry, the Beloved Country he does attempt to give voice to a black character. It could be because her voice would interfere with his didactic purpose, which is focused on Pieter and Sophie and the community to which they belong. Thus in contrast to Coetzee's, Paton's endeavour is not one that allows consciousness to be problematised in a dominating or alienating way. Yet it seems to me there is something more. With all the attributes she is given, with the narrative restraint from judgement upon her, Stephanie's silence remains, ultimately, closed to 'penetration'. Her elusion of Pieter in the Edenlike setting of the kloof is metaphoric for her elusion of both author and reader.

Previous

Paton, Alan (Vol. 10)

Next

Paton, Alan (Vol. 4)