A few years ago, on my way to South Africa, I decided read Alan Paton’s classic work, Cry, the Beloved Country, about the conflict that has defined the South African nation ever since the European empire established its dominion over the native tribes of that land.
In so many cases, as in this one, the true greatness of a work of art may be broken down into three pieces: structure, content and style. Of course such divisions are ultimately completely artificial and impossible to sustain, but indulging in them is a way of relishing the delicious beauty and profound sense of meaning the artist achieves in bringing them all together. Indulge me, then, briefly, if you will.
My favorite novels almost always possess a narrative structure that is crisply designed to deliver a functional force of movement the mere contemplation of which brings me joy and wonder. At the same time, the power of such structure relies entirely on the way it gives shape and dimension to the content of the story. The trick, as we all know, is to take a story with meaningful content and give it a powerful structure. And if the story has both deep meaning and great power, then hopefully the artist is also equally able to give it great poetry. Cry, the Beloved Country does all this superbly well.
In writing this novel, I imagine that Paton began by looking for a way to illustrate the tragic dysfunction of his nation. It is the dysfunction of an industrial and imperial race struggling to maintain the power to dictate the lives of an agrarian native people dispossessed not only of their land and resources, but also of their culture and beliefs. Paton finds his vehicle for illustrating the dysfunction and then structures his drama in three acts.
In the first act, Book One, Paton tells the story of how a black boy kills a white man in the capital city of Johannesburg. This is a good symbol of the dysfunction in South Africa. But Paton real symbol is not the murder, but the father of the murderer, the parent of the dysfunction. The story begins in a rural valley that is drought stricken, mismanaged, and so drained of all its prosperity. A poor black priest is witness to this fading remnant of the old ways of his people. He is not at fault for it, but a victim, and an honorable one at that. A man who continues to care for a suffering people with nothing left to cling to but their dying ways. It is this man who is called out of his old dying world to look for his sister, his brother, and his son, all of whom left his village long ago and have never written and never returned.
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