"The most famous and important novel in South Africa's History," reads the back of Paton's book. Cry, the Beloved Country is a powerful novel in the literary canon and the political sector. The book is not only one of artistic merit and beauty, but also one that carries deep messages about the past and for the future. It follows the heartache of two men who live in the same nation but different worlds. Their stories reflect the pain, turmoil and disconnection of the nation in the time just before apartheid. As one of Paton's masterpiece, this narrative reads like a novel but with a powerful yet subtle undercurrent of deeper meaning that is echoed in the motif of Abraham Lincoln and politics and in the significance of land. The novel's story exists on many levels, all of which are linked by the themes of the opening chapter. Switching between perspectives throughout, the book opens up the world of South Africa though Paton's vision. The book speaks with lyrical language from the very start enrapturing the reader with a descriptive scene of the Ixopo. The beginning frames the story with a poetic discussion of love of land, references to the creator, sorrow over the destruction of land, and devastation. These themes become a carrying current throughout the book which links the two sections.
The first section follows the painful story of an elderly Zulu man following his familial struggles into the tense, petulant heart of South Africa. Kumalo is a reverend living in Ixopo in South Africa. Ixopo is all he knows and has seen, but he chooses to set out on a journey to face their family's "greatest fear." That fear is worry over the fate of their son Absalom who went to Johannesburg and, "when people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back" (Paton 38). Through his journey, the racism, devastation and poverty of many natives in South Africa at the time are depicted. From the very beginning, Kumalo is tricked and mugged. Fortunately, he makes a friend in Mr. Mafolo, who becomes his travel companion. Kumalo is reunited with his troubled sister and nephew, and he also discovers his brother John is an influential politician. Still he does not find his son, but everywhere he goes he discovers how "the white man has broken the tribe" (56).
He continually finds where his son has been, but is no longer, and follows this ironic and heart-wrenching trail. He discovers his son has a pregnant girlfriend, whom Kumalo finds and takes in. The girl consents to marry her son and change her ways. He also learns of his son's involvement in crime. This enhances the overwhelming white fear of black crime. In the end, he learns his son has murdered a white man, and it feels that nothing could be worse. Absalom's fear and remorse is genuine, and as a reader I was moved to sympathy. However, the tensions of the region do not reflect such humanistic empathy, but reverberate fear, anger and racism. Just when all seems hopeless, and the narrative carries on in sad imagery, a well-regarded lawyer offers to take Absalom's case for free.
In the second section the story completely switches main perspectives to a different father-son relationship journey, that of the man Absalom killed, Arthur Jarvis, and his father, James Jarvis. The second section is told mostly with the focus on the father and his journey to come to understand and know his deceased son; however, like previous section, Paton plays with narrative voice and viewpoints. The fear of the land, the racism and the familial separation is still clear in this white world. Jarvis learns that his son had a role in changing the atmosphere of South Africa. He was an activist for natives, unification and reconciliation. Thus, there is a sense of deeper bitterness over the death of his son who tried to do so much. Letters pour in from so many organizations and people that he had assisted, that had admired him. Jarvis comes to learn of his son's great insights, high regard for Abraham Lincoln, and...
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