Alan Paton | Critical Review by John Romano

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Alan Paton.
This section contains 1,114 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Romano

Critical Review by John Romano

SOURCE: "A Novel of Hope and Realism," in The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1982, p. 7.

In the review below, Romano celebrates the classical emphasis on human truths and values of Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful.

Alan Paton's first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, is one of the few works by a contemporary writer one would risk calling a classic; in the case of that novel, published in 1948, the word has a rather specific meaning. The idea of a classic is historically bound up with the view, powerfully embodied in Paton's book, that there are certain perdurable human truths and values, immune from geographical or historical vitiation. The classical view, with its Judeo-Christian modifications, acknowledges that we are flawed, but not therefore ignoble; the classical view is famously realistic about our limitations, but celebrates our sense of possibility and the idea of hope. Indeed, the one ignoble thing, from the classical perspective, is despair.

Paton has spent his long life—he will be 80 next year—in circumstances in which despair might long since have seemed reasonable. As a white man in his native South Africa, he has written nearly a dozen books in support of the struggle for racial equality there. He taught school in the outlying districts, managed reformatories, was a founder of the Liberal Party and saw it suppressed by the Government. And yet Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful shows no slackening of either his hope or his realism. This novel is as vigorously and as exquisitely written as anything he has produced. It has the eloquence, the special commingling of sweetness and anger, the Orwellian force and lucidity, familiar to readers of Too Late the Phalarope (1953), his second novel, and several other volumes since. Its tone is quietly anguished. Its classical appeal is based on a direct and simple confidence that the facts of his country's moral disaster will move all men and women, all at once, in the same direction.

Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful is a novel in the form of a pastiche-memoir of the Defiance Campaign and the Liberal Party in the 1950's. The narrative is made up of letters, reflections, character sketches, bits of dialogue, the transcripts of a trial, a summary of newspaper accounts and scraps of official documents juxtaposed or sewn together by a narrator who seems himself the possessor of a long, patient, irresistible historical vision. It begins with the arrest of an Indian girl, Prem, a lovingly drawn character, for deliberately using a white library in violation of the color bar. (American readers will be interested in the multi-racial character of the rights struggle in South Africa; it's not simply a matter of blacks and whites.) Prem's story recurs throughout the novel and includes her love affair with a white student activist, the son of a prominent Government official. The novel also traces the careers of several white leaders of the new Liberal Party, in particular Robert Mansfield, a respectable upper-middle-class headmaster and former soccer star, who is ultimately driven to emigrate to Australia by the fierce hatred his espousal of the cause of equality arouses. There are glimpses, too—and these are among the most telling moments in the novel-into the minds of some South Africans who are opposed to racial equality: an Afrikaner civil servant whose letters to his aunt defend the new apartheid policies, a spinsterish character who writes hate letters signed "Proud Christian White Woman" and whose letters reek of diseased fascination/abhorrence of interracial sex. The episodic threads are brought together by the sudden imposition of new and strict apartheid measures in 1958, as the Afrikaner Nationalist Party comes to power. The persecution of anti-apartheid forces grows quickly more severe: newspapers are suppressed and 150 black and white activists and politicians are arrested. In the novel's final darkest pages a character who is transparently Dr. Henrik Verwoerk has become Prime Minister, and the bitterest and most hopeless period in the South African struggle for equality—a period which extends to the present—has begun.

The cumulative anecdotal force of Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful is difficult to convey. Considering its abundant violence, the passion of its advocacy, and the hatred it matter-of-factly reports, the book is remarkably gentle. Something of its anomalous calm, and one hopes its effectiveness, can be found in the following passage, an elegy to Sophiatown, a "blackspot" within the white quarter of Johannesburg that was physically broken up by the Government in 1955. Father Trevor Huddleston, a white Anglican priest, and a real historical figure, spent long years working in the vice-ridden slum.

Sophiatown had become to him the home of all things lovely. It was the place where old men and women came into the great church of Christ the King on their hands and knees. The humility and faith of it smote him in the inward parts. It was the place where small black children ran out from the houses to hold the hand of the father. It was the place where he and Sister Dorothy Maud could walk safe at any hour of the day or night.

"—Father

"—Yes

"—I have killed a man.

"—When?

"—Now now. In Sithole's yard.

"—You were gambling.

"—Yes.

"—You promised me.

"—I promised you, Father, but I broke it.

"—What happened?

"—This man played a card that was not in his hand. I said, That card was not in your hand. So he pulled out his knife.

"—And you pulled out yours?

"—Yes, Father.

"—Which you promised not to carry.

"—I repent, Father.

"—Go on.

"—He would have killed me, but I struck first. In a minute he was dead.

"—And everyone saw it?

"—Yes, Father.

"—Let us pray, Michael, then we shall go to the police.

"—Let us pray then.

This quietly forceful exchange—unprepared for and never alluded to again—emerges abruptly in the text. It is an example of Paton's characteristic method. Individual human dilemmas are never swallowed up or diminished by the overarching political context of the story he is telling. Paton is relentless in his faith in the moral meaning of individual human experience. The incident is an ugly one; but Michael's confession restores to him the dignity of which he has nearly robbed himself. Paton's faith is not a religious one, but a faith in the function, the usefulness of personal sympathy.

We can ameliorate any situation we can describe in language; communication and empathy are the truly revolutionary forces in this novel, where people are converted to causes not by argument but by, as one of them puts it, "a lump in the throat."

Alan Paton's considerable practical contributions to political life in South Africa aside, his place in the literature of social protest has been secured by the his steady devotion to the ideal of the empathetic imagination in fiction.

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This section contains 1,114 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Romano
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