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Review by Caoimhe McCutcheon
‘Cry, the beloved Country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valet. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much’
Cry, the Beloved Country is a book about crime. Written in 1948 in South Africa, it follows the story of Reverend Stephen Kumalo from a rural village, who goes to Johannesburg to find his sister, who he has been informed is ill. On arrival he finds that she has become a prostitute and his son (after a lengthy search) has murdered Arthur Jarvis, a white anti-apartheid activist. While this book does not skip over the brutality of the crime, nor try to justify it (indeed, we hear the pain of both the father of the murderer and the father of the murdered son in great detail), it does bring us to questions about the systems that create such criminal behaviour. For Alan Paton, that criminal system is apartheid; for myself it is the crime that is poverty.
The book also follows the story of James Jarvis, and wealthy landowner who lives next to the village of Stephen Kumalo and who is father of the murdered Arthur Jarvis. His own journey also takes him to Johannesburg, but in a sense it takes him much further, as he is greatly challenged as he reads over the writings of his son. Arthur Jarvis was a controversial anti-apartheid figure, who was preparing to deliver a paper called ‘The Truth about Native Crime’. Arthur Jarvis argues (posthumously) that it is inequality and discrimination, lack of education etc that have created a system that leave people feeling that they have no other choice but to commit crime. It is clear that Arthur Jarvis feels that the greater moral repugnance lies with the system that allows such discrimination, rather than with those individuals who respond to it.
My favourite books have always been those that make me reflect on my own life or society and this book certainly has. Maybe this is particularly affected me because I have been living in Zambia for the past few months, researching older people who are living in a rural village, worrying about their children in the city, much like Stephen Kumalo. The sections of posthumous writings by the murdered Jarvis where particularly appealing, and I found myself reading and rereading them long after I finished the book. His writings are deeply political and in some cases extremely radical, but with a simplicity of morality which I identify with. While he shows a clear understanding of the reasoning behind apartheid and poverty, his message is simply ‘This is wrong and should not happen’.
The line that has been running through my mind from these writings has been ‘We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under’. And, despite this book being written in 1948, for me, this resonates with modern ‘developed’ society. We lament the desperation of poverty, but often do little more than lament. We are disgusted by sweatshops and child labour, but that doesn’t necessarily stop us from buying the cheap shoes, or clothes that surely come from them. I can’t help but ask if we are not (to paraphrase Friere) acting in that farcical manner that affirms that people are free and deserving of rights, but doing nothing to make that affirmation a reality.
This is also a book of great hope and beauty. In the introduction, Paton discusses the idea that one can love a country too deeply. Certainly his love for South Africa, in its beauty, comes through in his description of the country, of life in rural areas, despite their great poverty. Certainly I feel the same way when working in rural Zambia, among people living in poverty that would be simply unimaginable if described (and certainly fall outside the 1000 words that it is suggested I keep this review to). In the villages, despite the desperation, there is a beauty beyond compare, not just with the countryside, but with the people and their unbreakable spirit.
The great hope of this book is found in its heroes. The characters who are fighting against what is a great evil in whichever small way they can are simply heroic, no more so than the two fathers. Stephen Kumalo, who has to deal with the devastation of the actions of his son but manages to continue a life of faith; who takes in his pregnant daughter-in-law, to give her a better life, away from the city; who never gives up on the hope that his son will repent for his actions. James Jarvis, who must not only deal with the death of his only son, but is also so challenged (as I was) by his writings, that he changes his entire outlook on South African society, and is driven to action for the local village through this transformation.
Possibly my favourite character is that of the ‘small boy’, the son of Arthur Jarvis, who befriends Stephen Kumalo while staying on his grandfather’s farm. His simplicity and innocence feel like a ‘young’ version of his father’s beliefs. During his conversations with Stephen Kumalo he has has no concept of why people who will die without milk cannot just have milk (and indeed appears to suggest his grandfather provides it for the village, as milk starts to get delivered to the village later in the week). I have been working with volunteers in Zambia for five years now, and I have always suggested that that they keep that childlike morality; hold the belief that, for example, children should not die because they cannot access clean water, or because they have no food, and that if they can do something, they should do it.
Cry, the Beloved Country is a book that is extremely relevant for today- and probably too relevant. The poverty described in 1948 is too similar to that I see today. If anything, with the onset of HIV/AIDS across much of Sub-Saharan Africa, it is probably worse today. Which is a saddening fact – the logical assumption would be that the situation would improve in 51 years. So, I will conclude this review in the same way that Paton concluded his book, asking when the darkness of the bondage of oppression and fear will lift. ‘But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why that is a secret’.
Scribner, 316 pp., ISBN 978-0684818948
Caoimhe is a PhD student from Belfast, but currently living in Zambia. She has BA in Politics and Sociology, and an MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development. She is currently researching the lives of older people living in rural areas, comparing Northern Ireland and Zambia, and making an attempt to fill the gap in comparative research between the ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ worlds, currently present in sociology.
She is also a dedicated volunteer with Project Zambia, a small Belfast community based NGO, which has been working in marginalised communities in rural and urban Zambia for 5 years. Her experiences working with community in Zambia have strongly influenced both her research and her reading material. More information on Project Zambia can be found at www.projectzambia.com.