Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 1, 2017

Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), by Alan Paton, read by Michael York

cry-the-beloved-countryListening to an audio book is a good way to revisit a book read a long time ago.  I first read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country decades ago, when apartheid was still firmly entrenched and the idea of multiracial democracy seemed like an impossible dream.  If anything, the situation in South Africa in the 1970s was even worse than when the book was first published in 1948 because there had been the Sharpeville massacre, Nelson Mandela was behind bars on Robben Island and the activist Ruth First had been killed by the South African security forces.  I read Cry, the Beloved Country through the prism of these events and felt that everything was hopeless.

Reading it today when South Africa is a multiracial democracy, I notice different aspects of the novel.  The plot revolves around the spiritual journey of the pastor Stephen Kumalo whose son Absalom Kumalo has been corrupted by life in Johannesburg.  Like Stephen’s sister Gertrude Kumalo, Absalom went to the city for work and lost contact with his family.  Using pitiful savings scraped together over many years, Stephen travels from the village of Ndotsheni, in Natal to find out what has become of them.

Authors – from Tolstoy to Balzac to Dickens – have explored the corrupting influence of city life on the impressionable young, but Paton’s Johannesburg is corrupted by something bigger and more evil than glitter.  Here the haves and have-nots are separated by skin colour, and the divide is signalled in countless ways, in ways we might know about such as the segregation of trains and townships, but also in ways we might not, such as when a handshake ‘in the custom of the Europeans’ displaces customary tribal ways of greeting.

European farming has disrupted the village economy and despoiled the environment, and displacement of the rural population into the mines is the consequence.  There are few options for women in this distorted economy: either the humiliations of domestic service, or the better-paid but degrading option of prostitution or selling illegal booze.  High levels of unemployment and the absence of any family structure mean that crime is endemic, and Stephen is shocked to find that his son Absalom, not much more than a boy, has shot and killed a white man and is on trial for his life in a society fearful of black violence.

What makes this even worse is that the instigator of this crime is Absalom’s cousin Matthew, the son of Stephen’s brother John.   John is a callous businessman and rabble-rouser who cynically sabotages Absalom’s defence by engaging a lawyer for his son to betray the truth of Absalom’s guileless testimony.

The moral complexity is heightened because the murdered man, Arthur Jarvis, is a prominent activist for racial justice.  (And as it turns out, he comes from the hills above Ndotsheni, where his father, James Jarvis has a productive farm that was originally farmed by the indigenous people).  Paton shows a grief-stricken James browsing through Arthur’s papers to learn about the big picture reasons for the social problems South Africa has created for itself, a fictional device which enables not only the placement of a cogent argument for change, but also shows the magnitude of the loss.  It’s not just a father’s loss, it’s a loss for the future of the country.

The novel explores how a good man might negotiate a world like this.  Stephen has been insulated from it by his work as a pastor in a remote location, but even he faces the threat of unemployment as his congregation declines.  Fortified by a faith that never wavers, he has nothing to offer the prodigals except a return to the village, and ultimately it is the work and the money of another good man, a white man, which leads to agricultural reform and renovation of the damaged land.  Without labouring the point, Paton makes it clear that restorative intervention using profits gained through the labour of others, is a white obligation not an act of generosity or pity.

The depiction of black activism, viewed today, might seem problematic, especially since it was authored by a white man.  There seem to be few options: patient resignation and prayer has no effect except perhaps as a balm for the soul; impotent rabble-rousing like John Kumalo’s has to be very prudent indeed because the police are watching him and he must always stop short of generating any real protest; and the strike for wage justice goes nowhere.  But in 1949, even before the events that shocked the world in the 1960s, Paton knew, I think, that the whites held all the cards.  Black people had no power, neither economic nor political, and the world did not care.  (You only have to watch the film A United Kingdom to see just how little the world cared about racial equity in that era).  At that time and in those circumstances Paton was making the case that morally the initiative ought to come from white people.

Alan Paton did not live to see the new South Africa, and he did not achieve his ambition to persuade white South Africa to share its power, for reasons of justice and survival.  But while his moderate – yes, perhaps too limited – ambitions did not achieve political change, he (and other writers) did raise awareness around the world and contributed to a recognition that a regime so corrupt at the core had to be pressured into change.

The narration by Michael York is well done, faltering only in the depiction of the Afrikaaner accent.

Author: Alan Paton
Title: Cry, the Beloved Country
Narrated by Michael York
Publisher: Blackstone Audio Books, 2008, first published 1948
ISBN: 9781433213670
Source : Kingston Library


  1. I too read this book a long time ago and it had a profound on my awareness limited as it was of the horror of racism and being from a working class background riven with all kinds of discriminations it was another step in my education of the injustice which unfortunately seems to barely have budged and here in the land down under it’s the spectre along with the ignorance of working class history that is creating serious schisms in what we were led to believe a perfect example of democracy and multiculturalism. We all need to be re-awakened to this blight which destroys the notion of a civil and dare I say it happy society.


    • It just shows you the power of books, and fiction in particular. This book went round the world when it was first released in 1948, and (as we see from comments here from those of us ‘of a certain age’ it was still being widely read 20 years later in the 1960s and 70s. Along with books by other SA authors like Andre Brinks and Nadine Gordimer, it would have influenced people into campaigning for sanctions and boycotts, that did have an effect.
      That’s why we need politically aware authors to keep writing books that matter.


  2. Thank you for bringing up a novel that caught me in my “tender” years (1950s) and left a huge impact on this sheltered young girl from the American Midwest. A few years later, in NYC, I was able to see “Lost in the Stars” the Kurt Weill version of the book . . .magic

    In that era, Catcher in the Rye was theeee important book, but for me it was Cry the Beloved Country.


    • Hi Romy, you’ve noted the difference between the preoccupations of two very different novels – the narrative of a self-absorbed adolescent and the profound quest for racial justice. It’s quite ironic when you think about it…


  3. Lisa, I read this at high school when a wonderful teacher – Dr Saffin, who was a Dr of Literature initiated fabulous discussions about all aspects of colonialism, settlement, apartheid and rebellion, including making us look closer to home (the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights!). It was his praise of the power of story that encouraged me to dream I could write stories that matter! I had the privilege of meeting Helen Suzman when she came to ANU in the 70s – thank goodness the world produces those decent human beings who campaign against injustice and racism when they could sit back in their privileged position and ignore it all.


    • Wow, Helen Suzman – she was brave too, as was every campaigner after what happened to Ruth First. Her assassination was a warning to white activists to keep out of it, but some like Helen refused to lie low.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your comment ‘we need politically aware authors to keep writing books that matter’ stopped me in my tracks: I so agree – and the only thing I miss in Australian writing (with few exceptions)


    • *chuckle* I’m always banging on about that. Just last week I was wondering why we have so few novels about the impact of our horrendous bushfires…

      There *are* Australian authors who write books that matter but they tend to be swamped by yet more books about relationships and domestic issues that skirt the big picture. (I am so tired of books about grief!) The last novel that comes quickly to mind that tackled the issue of refugees was Alastair Sarre’s Prohibited Zone. Alice Robinson and Jane Rawson write the CliFi that Kate Grenville said Australians should write (but she never has). John A Scott in ‘N’ took on the tension between popular rule and decisive leadership – it was published in 2014 but is even more relevant now. Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident is a wake-up call about the shameful murder rate for women caught up in domestic violence, and Roger McDonald tackled the crisis of masculinity in the bush in When Colts Ran. There’s also a swag of indigenous writers covering Australia’s Black History, identity and reconciliation matters: Marie Munkara, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, and Bruce Pascoe to name just the most prominent.

      PS I forgot to mention Thomas Keneally, said by some to be an Antipodean Balzac. His most recent book took on clerical sexual abuse…

      But yes, (absolving popular fiction authors because it’s not really their remit) when you think about books tackling the important issues that really matter, well, from the publicity blurbs I come across, there’s a bit of a drought really.


  5. I too read this in my teens and it had a far greater impact on my than most of the books I read back then. While I don’t remember the details of the plot I remember its intent, the themes, and the generosity of spirit of the “good” characters.My favourite character has always been Msimangu and his statement about power and love. It’s a quote I copied into my quote book that I kept at the time and still have.

    As for books that matter, hmmm, I guess I feel a *bit* differently. I love novels of ideas, novels that grapple with current issues (like many of those you name) but not everyone can write those novels. Jane Austen was often criticised for not addressing the hot topics of the day – the war and its impact for example – but her exploration of/deep understanding of human nature is what keeps me coming back to her again and again. Of course, she also addressed women’s economic powerlessness, but I don’t think contemporary readers recognised that or thought that was what she was writing about.


  6. Yes, I could have talked more about Msimangu in my review because he is a great character but I’m mindful that (on the basis of the Spark Notes I saw at Google) this is a set text somewhere…
    I hear what you say about Austen, (and I would argue that the marriage market *was* a topic that mattered) but the point is that there were other novelists tackling social and political issues in Britain anyway. It’s not that every great novelist ought to write about this or that item of significance. The problem arises IMO when in a given culture hardly anybody is writing about the stuff that matters.


    • Yes, I would argue that too, about Austen, but people at the time didn’t necessarily and some people still now don’t. I don’t know that there were many others at her time tackling those issues. Dickens came later. As did Elizabeth Gaskell. Hmm, I’m struggling at present to think of her fiction peers so maybe there were some?

      I guess I’m more forgiving of writers in that I don’t feel there are any “shoulds”. People have to express what they want to express or, perhaps more to the point, what they feel able to express. I think it’s hard to write good fiction about contemporary topical matters, in that it’s hard not to be polemical or didactic. Yet as you’ve noted, there are quite a few writers and books out there. I’d add, for example, Stephen Orr’s The hands and Jessica White’s Entitlement which also deal with the thorny issue of farm inheritance (among other things, in both their cases).

      Thinking about your comment on grief – which point I take about how many there are – perhaps it’s a case of this being a current issue of interest. Our modern western society has been so removed from death and disallowed people to grieve (think those poor women and their stillborn babies they couldn’t see, not all that long ago). The stiff upper lip was forced on people – on mothers, on men, etc etc. Perhaps this current trend is a righting of that – so it is stuff that matters? It’s probably the case that in another decade or so a few will survive as the best of the bunch and the rest will fade away. When you are reading the current output it’s hard to see the longview (if that makes sense?)

      Oh dear I have rambled! Sorry!


  7. Oh, I agree that people have to follow their own muse and write whatever they want. But that doesn’t alter the fact that some of us are yearning for literature that tackles the issues of our times and are ecstatic when we find it.

    But beyond personal preference, it seems to me that at a time when Australian authors are fighting an important funding battle with the federal government they need to be able to make a case for the significance of their work that *justifies* that funding.


  8. Like your other ‘old’ commenters, I read this at school, but still was not really aware of racism and apartheid until I got to Uni. I agree that we need our best writers to tackle the big issues and I’m sorry JA had nothing to say about slavery. WG, I too forgot the popular novelists of JA’s day but Walter Scott may have been the best of her contemporaries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, good one, Bill, he was – and he admired her though was surprised at what she could do on such a small canvas as I recollect.


  9. […] the comments on her post about Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) commented that we need “politically aware authors to keep writing books that matter”. Hmm, I […]


  10. […] Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, read by Michael York […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

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

You are commenting using your 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


%d bloggers like this: