John Wiswell's Reviews > Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
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May 02, 08

it was amazing
Recommended for: African issues readers, historical readers, modern classics readers, humanitarian readers
Read in May, 2008

This isn't an infinitely quotable book, but occasionally it produces a line that is devastatingly clear and true. Lines like, "It was not his habit to dwell on what could have been, but what could never be." and, “It is the duty of a judge to do justice, but it is only the people who can be just.” made me put the book down and stare dumbfounded at the wall. But mostly this isn't a highly quotable book; it's a beautifully written, riveting book where passages or entire halves of scenes are compelling streams of words, readily understandable for actions and conversations, and profound for their insights and suggestions into human life in adversity and prosperity.

If you're going to write a borderline hopeless story, do it like this. Paton's prose is mostly readable and occassionally beautiful, especially in his monologues, letters and prayers. For example: "The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement." It goes on, but this should give you a sense of Paton's insight and rhetorical ability.

Paton touches on almost every level of trouble in post-colonial South Africa: racism, classism, elitism, residual imperical feelings, how wealth corrupts natives, arbitrary segregation, the loss of family values, the loss of social pride, the abandonment of positive religious teachings, the inability of government and the misunderstanding of the new laws. It doesn't blame white people or black people; it creates individuals who embody multiple faults, and when such people make up a new nation, it shows how such a system could collapse and increase human suffering. Paton does not rub this in your face; even his foreward explains that several of these people are real or are based on real people, and his praises those who are working towards a better world. This novel is every ounce about trying to do something. This isn't literary bleakness or contemptable anti-humanitarianism (a strange view for any author to have, given that all our authors are humans). There are good people stuck in all of this, and from the very first chapter you get a sense that this is, if not a good place, then a place that could be truly great. The difference between Alan Paton here and Edith Wharton or Nathanael West in much of their writing is that the disappointment does not permeate the tone and the myopic view does not bias the story. Paton is a far more sympathetic writer, able to capture the most dangerous elements of humanity in a way that is uniquely his own, though we'd be better off if it became more common.
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message 1: by Ugo (new) - added it

Ugo CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY,is vivid and enchanting,beguiling and sincere,poignant and comforting all at once.But most of all it is a heartfelt prayer for South Africa.


Karen Wang "Lines like, "It was not his habit to dwell on what could have been, but what could never be." and, “It is the duty of a judge to do justice, but it is only the people who can be just.” made me put the book down and stare dumbfounded at the wall. "

It's exactly how I felt. Some of these words are so beautiful that they take my breath away. You feel like you're holding something sacred in your hands, and you just want to read it over and over again to prolong this moment of insight.


Suzanne Crane "...made me put the book down and stare dumbfounded at the wall."

Precisely. Well said!


Jenny Your thoughts express my experience as well - only I don't know that I could share them as you did - thank you!


message 5: by Hosein (new) - added it

Hosein payandar that is ok,please send me beautiful books


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