Thursday, 8 April 2010

Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Redolent of The Grapes of Wrath in its scope and social commentary as much as its written style, Cry, The Beloved Country is Paton’s heartfelt work of protest about the problems facing South Africa in the late 1940s.


Rural pastor Stephen Kumalo travels to Johannesburg after receiving news that his sister Gertrude is unwell, also hoping to find his son Absalom while he is there. In the city he meets local priest Theophilus Msimangu who tells him the sad news that Gertrude’s illness is in fact a life of drinking and prostitution.

She lives in Claremont, not far from here. It is one of the worst places in Johannesburg. After the police have been there, you can see the liquor running in the streets. You can smell it, you can smell nothing else, wherever you go in that place. He leant over to Kumalo. I used to drink liquor, he said, but it was good liquor, such as our fathers made. But now I have vowed to touch no liquor any more. This is bad liquor here, made strong with all manner of things that our people have never used. And that is her work, she makes it and sells it. I shall hide nothing from you, though it is painful for me. These women sleep with any man for their price. A man has been killed at her place. They gamble and drink and stab. She has been in prison more than once.

Moonshine and bad beer are part of a raft of issues that Paton tackles, and despite the author’s overall spirit of optimism, history tells us that things got a lot worse before anything got better. Even today, South Africa is in the news again, the fragility of its social fabric under the spotlight once more.

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