Lyrical. If I had to pick one word to describe the writing in Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, it would be “lyrical.” Yet, by writing with such a strong sense of place and time and complexity, Paton does not oversimplify or romanticize the agonizing storylines. It is a skillful and natural writing that portrays authenticity and deep sincerity from the author to the reader through the characters.
The story is set in South Africa in a time just before the policy of what we now know of as apartheid was instituted. The racial tensions are palpable, but it is the drama of the individuals and families that capture the heart of the book. White and black are clearly identified but readers are convinced of the universality of the themes and struggles by hearing the stories through the eyes of two fathers – one whose son is murdered and the other whose son is the murderer – mostly through the latter.
The main protagonist, a priest named Stephen Kumalo but respectfully addressed mostly as umfundisi, must journey to Johannesburg in search of a sister and also a son who left at different times and never returned. His experiences in the bustle of the city leave him disconcerted and dejected. His quest to find his son, Absalom, is successful but untimely – finding him only after he has made too many bad choices and one that ultimately leads to a murder charge.
An unexpected meeting between Kumalo and the father of the murdered son shapes the unlikely direction of the rest of the story. In a twist of conversations and brief meetings and small gestures and the beautifully repeated phrase, “I understand,” the two men work to rebuild the barren land of the priest’s home. The rains that eventually come to the dry place seem to suggest that heaven itself is crying for the agony of the land, for the agony of the country, and for the agony of the fathers. But, as rain often does in literature, it suggests a slight shift towards a rebirth, renewal, and cleansing. The tone alters slightly and hope is introduced for possibly the first time in the reading.
The forgiveness and healing and hope for the future stick with the reader in the final chapters. Despite a story of grim and unpleasant realities, Paton has written a truly beautiful piece that tugs and pulls and resonates in all the right places. While it is usually off-putting to read a piece that blatanly reveals the author’s heart, the affection that Paton poured into the piece serves to connect more genuinely with the reader – this is not a story written for the sake of writing a story, it is a story written to plead with a country tip-toeing towards great darkness. Every word is carefully chosen and each sentence carries great weight.
Lyrical. Beautiful. And, in light of the historical events that followed this time period, tragic.