P is for Pathos (Paton)

What I read: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

I read this book for my church book club. I confess that my initial reaction was to run out and find the cliff notes: to do anything but actually read the book. My reaction was largely due to the jacket summary which stated, "[T]he story reaches a height of tragedy which has seldom been equaled in contemporary fiction."

If anything could turn me away from reading a novel, that little blurb would be it.

To digress a bit, I've never been a big fan of tragedy for tragedy's sake. In high school, I detested Steinbeck's The Pearl; disliked A Separate Peace; refused to read The Red Pony; found Tess completely ridiculous; and still consider Ethan Frome one of the stupidest novellas ever written.

On the other hand, I quite liked Shakespeare's tragedies; enjoyed Lord Jim; applauded Lord of the Flies; and even liked the movie version of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (the one with Gary Sinise) when I finally got around to watching it.

After some thought, I determined that I don't mind--and sometimes even like--tragedy based on individuals' deeds gone wrong as opposed to tragedy based on subservience to fate.

That said, it is hard to know which category Cry, the Beloved Country falls into. I did read it very slowly since it is so sad. However, it is also heart-warming and beautifully written.

Cry, the Beloved Country has a lyricism that I've noticed in Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana novels; I've wondered if McCall Smith read Paton or if the land itself seeps into the writing of those who have lived in Africa. In many ways, it is interesting to compare Paton to McCall Smith, not because they are writing the same kind of stuff but because their perspective on Africa is separated by fifty years of change. McCall Smith is more optimistic, but his books have the same sense of awesome (in the biblical sense) sadness one finds in Paton: a feeling of overwhelming sorrow swallowed up in an expanse of space (I don't mean to sound flip because I really don't feel flip, but the song "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" in The Muppet Movie conveys the sense I'm talking about).

To return to Cry, the Beloved Country, the novel's most astounding characteristic is Paton's focus on individual human emotion. The story takes place against a context of severe oppression, yet the fundamental, true emotions of the father, Jarvis, and the various people the father meets are never ignored in favor of the larger picture. This makes the book human, real, universal. It makes the context more comprehensible as well as more appalling because it has not been swallowed up in political rhetoric. One of Paton's finest qualities is that he is not willing to placate the context with clear-cut/easy explanations and solutions. So many people in the novel are good people just trying to do their best. This makes the book indescribably touching.

And the overall point is subtle, yet sure: good occurs when individuals decide to do good. I've run across few pieces of literature, outside of the Bible, that present such a comprehensive picture of forgiveness followed by acts of kindness. It is stunning and nothing like, well, the finale of Hamlet, for instance.

Cry, the Beloved Country is much better than "unequaled tragedy."

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