Going Up The Country

Cry The Beloved Country
Alan Paton

Last I looked, Earth was a pretty good-sized planet. Lots of water, sure, but seven continents, six of them habitable and populated. Plenty of cultural diversity if you put a little effort into looking.

Maybe making the effort is too much to ask. Or maybe there’s some truth to the idea that the engines of our culture–especially the commercial ones–have a tendency to be Eurocentric. My shelves aren’t exactly bursting with works from more than a few continents, despite my best efforts to cast as wide a net as possible.

So until now, I can’t say I’ve read any sub-Saharan African writers. And I’m not even certain that expanding my literary geography has expanded my literary diversity. Alan Paton, the author of this novel set in just-pre-Apartheid  South Africa, is as European in his sensibilities as any other author I’ve read. Since the same can be said about many of the Latin American writers I love, I can’t dismiss the presence of unconscious bias among the editors and publishers exercising their gatekeeping role.

But back to the book. This is the story of two men from the same place experiencing life in very different ways until events far away, in Johannesburg, create an intersection. Normally, I would say  ‘bring them together,’ but while their lives become entwined there remains between them the gulf of race, the problem at the root of this gently moralizing tale.

Modern viticulture in a landscape much like the valley of the Umzimkulu.

Stephen Kumalo is an Anglican priest, an umfúndisi in the Zulu language, working in Ndotsheni, in the valley of the Umzimkulu, a place he knows intimately as he is a lifelong resident. A once verdant locale, drought and abusive agricultural practices have transformed it into a desolate place. So hardscrabble is the existence that the population has largely been reduced to old people and children. The mothers of the children are present, but they do not predominate in the population; men in their prime working years are few. Kumalo himself must be in his late sixties, at least.

Like others in Ndotsheni, the Kumalo family has dispersed, mostly to the nation’s largest city. Kumalo’s sister, Gertrude, brother, John and son, Absalom,  are all in Johannesburg, though as the book opens he learns his sister is ill. His son has already gone missing. The parson takes the arduous-seeming train trip to the city, where finds all of them, and more.

Johannesburg provides a stark contrast to the rural setting Kumalo is accustomed to. If life at home is familiar, life in the city is not just different, it occurs in, if not another world, then another century.  Almost instantly upon his arrival, Kumalo is the victim of a con. This is not a world in which trusting people, for all its virtues, is rewarded.

Johannesburg as it must have looked mid-20th century.

Kumalo is saved by fellow clergyman, Theophilus Msimangu. This vicar plays Virgil to Kumalo, shepherding him through the hellish circles of urbanizing, mid-20th century colonial Africa. That’s a string of unpleasant adjectives I find appropriate for a book that begins with a description of the South African landscape that seeks to convey its transcendent power. Commerce, as is almost always the case in such comparisons, seems tawdry, however necessary it may be.

Msimangu helps Kumalo find a place to stay and assists him in his travails. He finds his sister, descended into pathologies of the urban underclass. He finds his brother, a man transformed into the voice of his people. Unfortunately, John’s soul is nowhere near as principled as his voice is emboldening. He’s a budding demagogue who’ll gladly take his own share from the colonial paymasters even as he keeps the pot of native rebellion at a simmer just short of boiling over.

What of the son, Absalom? Kumalo finds him, too, in prison. He’s been arrested with two companions, one of whom is John’s son, for the murder of a white man whose house they entered, intent on robbery. Absalom is the loser as his companions have sold him out for the capital crime.

Johannesburg Magistrates Court, the probable location of the trial in this book.

Abruptly, the book stops and Book II opens. In a move I’ve never seen before,  the exact same paragraphs as Kumalo’s story open James Jarvis’. Except this is the story of a white planter, the umnúmzana,  who lives on the hill. Jarvis shares the beauty and former bounty of the land but not the struggles of the native population. Almost instantly he’s called to the phone. His son has been murdered.

And so the tales converge. As they merge Jarvis has an awakening. His son, Arthur, was something of an activist, advocating forcefully for full inclusion of the native population in the nation’s future. He has a library full of Lincoln and was working on a speech at the time of his death. Jarvis tries to understand “…this man [Lincoln], who had exercised such an influence over his son.” Ironically, Jarvis is the white person least focused on fear and retribution, though he does seek justice.

Inevitably, paths cross and the majesty of the law takes control. There exists a vast social science literature on the inherent bias of legal systems.  None is as damning as this portrait of a system grinding to an inexorable conclusion. Stephen is just a man. He can find lost sheep, alone he cannot save them.

And so he returns home. His sister, who was to go with him, has, at the last moment, fled. Whether she does so to avoid the whisperings and limitations of a small town or because she craves the allures of the demimonde is left unsaid. But a girl accompanies Stephen. She is pregnant with Absalom’s child, who will now be raised away from the horrors of modern urban life.

Though apartheid is younger than this book, the ideas behind it aren’t.

Back on the veldt, change arrives. Nothing can ever be the same. In a small town, everyone knows what happened and to whom. The ecclesiastical powers plan to transfer Kumalo. And then there is an intercession. Jarvis begins spending money to improve the lives of his black neighbors.

An expert in agriculture is hired. A dam is staked out. Plans are made, the populace engaged. God, or nature, seems to smile on this and the rains return. It is an idyll, its persistence not a given. Everyone knows that, like any man, Jarvis does not have limitless means.

As it turns out, he has even less time. His wife, who was ailing when we met him and has not improved in the aftermath of her son’s death, passes on. Kumalo pays his respects. Afterward, Jarvis tells Kumalo he is leaving Ndotsheni.

Paton’s art isn’t demonstrated just in the clear love of his homeland conveyed in his prose–and I include all of it, black and white, urban and rural–but that he leaves you feeling uneasy, unsettled and yet not hopeless.

And none of us can live without hope.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.