April 12 is a day of literary anniversaries. Beverly Cleary turns 95 today (here’s a link to a short article honoring her birthday). The Iowa Writers’ Workshop–which launched the career of Flannery O’Connor and has produced twenty-eight Pulitzer Prizes–started seventy-five years ago today (here’s an excellent piece about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Seventy-five years before that, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter.
April 12 is also the anniversary of the death of Alan Paton, author of Cry,The Beloved Country. He died in 1988. If you haven’t read this book, I really must insist that you do. First published in 1948, it tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black South African pastor who journeys from his tiny village in Natal to the city of Johannesburg to rescue his erring sister and find his son, both of whom had been swallowed up by the big city. It is a story of suffering and dissolution and grace and forgiveness. I re-read a little of the book this morning and was struck again by how insulated most of us Westerners are from the sorrows and sufferings of the world. And while I don’t wish to suffer like Kumalo and his family, I am also aware that to be insulated from suffering is to be insulated in many ways from life and from the relationships that give life meaning. Kumalo, for all his sorrow and fear and little lapses in judgment, is very much alive.

Fiction, as I have said before on the blog, exercises our muscles of empathy. In reading Cry, The Beloved Country, we are given the opportunity to inhabit “the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping and dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall.” The end result of such empathy is not fear, but a renewed confidence that grace and love–and, by extension, courage and forgiveness and kindness and decency–rise to the challenge of those fears. Cry, The Beloved Country is a book in which genuine beauty rises out of the worst sort of ugliness. Kumalo’s world is one in which love and kindness are not luxuries, but a source of life. The same is true in our world, but, again, the padding with which we have insulated ourselves makes that truth less obvious.

One of my favorite things about the story is the elaborate courtesy with which the black South Africans treat each other. In world “not made for them,” a world that often treats them as subhuman, their almost tedious formalities and honorifics communicate to one another that they are indeed valued. The stylized humility of their courtesies seems to reflect a genuine humility–a voluntary humility–that gives the lie to the humiliations that are forced on them. That humility is best summarized, perhaps, in the formulation that is often repeated by Msimangu, a city pastor who shows Kumalo many kindnesses: “I am not kind. I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all.”

Your library has Cry, The Beloved Country. They should be open today.

  • S.D. Smith
    6:20 PM, 12 April 2011

    Hip, hip, hooray. Thank you Alan Paton, What a fine book and an excellent few paragraphs on it, JR. I have always felt about this book what I feel about good hymns. They are too good for me to write, or write much about.
    This book is like a good hymn in other ways. It is truthful, poetic –musical even– and lands on forgiveness.

    Your point about the courteous ways of many of the blacks is telling. I have experienced that very personally. Especially among Zulus (like the fictional Umfundisi Kumalo) but also among many tribes both black and white in this beloved country, my second home.

  • Amy
    7:17 PM, 12 April 2011

    JR, I loved this book, too. We read it this past summer while Ford was in South Africa on a student exchange in the same exact geographic area as the setting of the book. Like S.D., I thought the book was lyrical, and anything I might say about it wouldn’t be adequate. You have done a lovely job, which is no surprise.
    J.R. is right…everyone should read this book. If you can’t find a copy, I will mail you mine. 🙂

  • Dan Kulp
    7:50 PM, 12 April 2011

    I read it and for weeks wanted to have a “go well”, “stay well” exchange anytime I parted company with someone. So much covered is so few words.
    Instead my cordial departure terms tend more towards – “what’s your vector, Victor.”

  • Jonathan Rogers
    8:00 PM, 12 April 2011

    Right on, SD. It was definitely hard to know what to say about this book. This one requires that you pick one little corner and say something and leave a whole lot unsaid.
    Actually, Amy, I lost my copy. Can you mail me yours?

    So, Dan, if you’re saying goodbye to someone online and both of you are staying where you are, do you say “Stay well…Stay well?”

  • S.D. Smith
    8:31 PM, 12 April 2011

    Dan: isiZulu also features a greeting of, “I see you.” I can’t remember if that’s in the book. The response, of course, is “I am here.” This is the way to say “hello,” and “hello back,” in isiZulu.
    OK, this is making me very nostalgic.

  • Loren
    1:22 AM, 13 April 2011

    I have this book in my home library…and it’s one I’ve intended to read for years and haven’t…. Good reminder and good motivation to pull it off the shelf!

  • sally apokedak
    1:58 PM, 13 April 2011

    I’ve never read it so I went to Amazon to check it out. In their sample pages I didn’t actually get to any of the story itself because there were three author notes written for different editions of the book. How he wrote the book and got it published is a fascinating story.

  • Canaan Bound
    3:46 AM, 14 April 2011

    S.D. Smith, “I see you” reminds me of Avatar. Eew!

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