A Stop in South Africa (Two Novels by Alan Paton)

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In November, I reread Cry, the Beloved Country for my book club and then, because I loved that book so much, I read Too Late the Phalarope, also by Alan Paton.

Although I am glad I had a second experience with Paton’s South Africa, I still much preferred the first novel. I’d be happy to send you my lightly used copy of Too Late the Phalarope. See below for giveaway information.

Cry, the Beloved Country

When I read Cry, the Beloved Country as a teenager, it was on my mother’s suggestion. She loved the message of hope it portrays, and thought it would be one I’d enjoy. I recall that I did enjoy it, and while I remembered the basic plot and themes, I didn’t remember the details.

When I returned to it this year, I was a bit taken aback at first because the language is so difficult: it is in a Biblical style (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) and that adds a layer of complexity to the story. Dialogue is offset with only a dash at the beginning of the paragraph, so I was often confused where the dialogue ends and thoughts begin. This adds a surprisingly realistic feel to the man’s daily experiences in an overwhelming city.

To be honest, I didn’t like the writing style at first. As I mentioned, I did like the novel as a teenager, but this time, it really threw me off. I couldn’t read over breakfast or lunch or as my son played: I needed strict concentration – just me and the book – in order for the events and language to sink in. As I focused on the book, though, it gave back to me.

Cry, the Beloved Country is about two fathers, one white and one black. Stephen Kumalo is the Reverend of the very poor native community in the valley of Ndotsheni, and James Jarvis is the white farmer on the High Place above the valley. When Kumalo travels to Johannesburg in search of his son Absalom, the lives of the two men are inevitably brought together.

That sounds vague, as I don’t want to “spoil” the book. In some ways, Cry, the Beloved Country is about the dichotomy between being black in South Africa and being white. It is about rural life versus city life. It is about hatred versus forgiveness. As the black man and the white man come to know each other, they learn what it means to live and serve each other. They aren’t so different after all.

Alan Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country in 1947, and it was published in 1948, the year apartheid, the legal separation based on race, was made law in South Africa. It therefore portrays the country before whites were given legal permission to discriminate against the blacks. And yet, the traditional separation in the culture is obvious and heart-breaking. I believe that Paton’s purpose in writing the book is to illustrate how similar the two men (white and black) really are. Both are fathers, struggling to have a life full of purpose.  Ultimately, Cry is about the hope for the future if only the other people in the country could have the same realization of equality among the human race.

I reread Cry, the Beloved Country specifically for my book club and we had a great discussion about the themes in the book. Most enjoyed the book, although two people disliked it and found it depressing.  I personally wasn’t really crying throughout the book, but my throat kept getting all tight. It was painful to read. But I think it was necessary for me, because it helped me see the hope that comes from loving one another in our communities, even a community that is so full of inequality. It was a hopeful book to me.

One further note: I read most of a book of commentary and criticism (edited by Harold Bloom). While much of the criticism focused on the religious aspects and the symbolism, I found that many of the arguments felt like a stretch to me. Yes, this book is obviously intended to be a religious allegory: the writing style and the names, for example, hearken to Biblical elements. But for me, reading this book was about the hope I got from the character’s interactions, not about the symbolism.

Too Late the Phalarope

Alan Paton’s second novel, Too Late the Phalarope, has a different feel. It, too, has a Biblical tone to it and the dialogue is confused with thoughts. But I did not like the narrator, the spinster aunt Sophie, and writing style seemed affected and a little tedious. I’m not sure why the writing affected me in this novel, as it seems similar to the other. But the subject matter wasn’t as appealing to me either: it was not about hope.

Pieter is not just an Afrikaner lieutenant in the South African police corps, he’s also a star rugby player, husband and father, and once a star student. His father is pleased with his well-rounded son, but he has a little bit of reserve, since his son is too tender: he loves too much. Pieter, too, wishes that he, like the others around him, shrank away from black people and saw them as less than he is. But he cannot. Pieter loves people, regardless of race.

Ultimately, Too Late the Phalarope is about love. Pieter’s thoughts on love are complicated by his relationship with his wife, who is cold and distant to him. He loves her, and yet there is something missing between them. And Pieter’s deepest secret is that he is attracted to a black woman, which may be a capital offence in 1950s South Africa.

Too Late the Phalarope is not a happy book. Since Paton wrote it after apartheid had been made law, it seems he himself realized the backwards direction that the country was going: no longer is there the hope for a better future that he wrote about in his pre-apartheid book.

That’s not to say that a sad book isn’t good. It was good: it brought a painful issue to the forefront of political consciousness then, and there is relevance today as one looks at the issues of love it addresses. It just wasn’t my favorite book, and I don’t intend to reread it.

Would you like my lightly read copy of Too Late the Phalarope? Let me know in the comments.

I received this paperback used from a giveaway at Maw Books Blog more than a year ago, but it is in very good shape, with just slightly bent cover corners. This giveaway is open until Saturday morning, 4 December 2009. It’s open to anyone around the globe. If you are a regular reader (i.e., you have left a comment on Rebecca Reads before today), you get an extra entry in this giveaway.

A note on the title: A phalarope is a rare South African bird. I was very curious myself.

Have you read Alan Paton? Did you enjoy the writing style?

What books have you read with difficult or different writing styles? Did the writing style change your enjoyment of the book?

Reviewed on November 30, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I had a difficult time at first with the writing style, too, but once I found the rhythm, it was much easier for me to digest. I found it similar to The Grapes of Wrath in style (in places at least), but I suppose the Grapes of Wrath also has a very biblical slant to its writing.

    I’m looking forward to Too Late the Phalarope even after your review. I don’t know that I would have liked it much reading it directly after Cry, but maybe with some distance between the two, I’ll like it? No need to enter me for the contest – I found a copy of this at a library sale recently (I think that’s where I got it).

  • I read Cry, The Beloved Country when I was in junior high at the suggestion of my social studies teacher. I remember enjoying it but wonder if I really understood it. It sounds like it’s worth a re-read.

  • I’ve Cry the Beloved Country on the tbr. I actually read the first page and thought it was beautiful. I might not have difficulty with the writing style as I’ve been used to reading the King James Bible since childhood. Anyway, glad to hear you love the book. Makes me look more forward to it.

    You don’t need to enter me for Too Late the Phalarope as I’m not sure yet if I want to read that, and I don’t want to add anymore to the tbr if it isn’t something I will read next year!

  • I read Cry the Beloved Country back when I was in college (over a break, I think, not for a class). I remember it took me a while to get into, partly perhaps because of the language but mostly because of my complete ignorance about South Africa. Ultimately, I did find it to be very moving. It’s one I’ve often thought would be worth revisiting.

  • As you know, I am reading Proust. His writing style is not so much a difficult writing style but it is a style that for me requires complete concentration and no distractions.
    I’d be interested in reading Too Late the Phalarope – it sounds like an interesting story for the time it was written.

  • “Cry, the Beloved Country” was required reading in HS English. I remember liking the book and feeling impacted by it, but nothing about what we discussed in class (HS was a long time ago….before Mandela and the end of apartheid….gosh, I feel old now). But I’m pretty sure that bibilical overtones never came up; that’s interesting hearing that from you. Over the years, this is one of the books I’ve wanted to re-read but never have gotten around to it.

    I think I’d like to read “Too Late the Phalarope”, but not sure when I’d get to it, especially if you think I should re-read “Cry, the Beloved Country” first.

  • Amanda, I haven’t read Grapes of Wrath yet, but now I’m looking forward to it very much! I hope you enjoy Phalarope. It’s different and not as happy but I think it’s still a good book.

    Kathy, I do think Cry is a book worth rereading!

    claire, I think it took me by surprise, even though I too have read the Bible throughout my life! You jsut don’t expect it when reading a novel. But once you get used to it, it is just an interesting way to tell a story. Enjoy it when you read it!

    Teresa, I did a lot of background reading for the book group I run and it made it a lot of fun to read the book! I, too, found it very moving upon my revisit!

    Suzanne, I can imagine that about Proust! Still way impressed by your project! I’ll enter you for the book 🙂

    Jackie, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it! I think it is important!

    Valerie, that’s funny that the Biblical aspects never came up since Bloom’s book of criticism seemed to focus on it! There is plenty of meat in the book for discussion though.

    I don’t think you’d need to reread Cry first. The books are very different, just the writing style is somewhat similar. Did you want me to “enter” you in the giveaway?

  • Rebecca,
    I wonder if Bloom’s book came out after I was in HS? I think we had concentrated on the cultural/political aspects the most when we discussed it.

    Sure, enter me in the give away — like I need more books right 😉 ?

  • Valerie, while the Bloom book is a recent publication, the essays in it are from the last 50 years. I think it’s very interesting that the high school class focused on what was most interesting to them!!

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