Archive for February, 2009


It was an african theme this time, but actually we all read cry the beloved country and there was no discussion of other african books. so there is plenty of room for another african theme in future.

there was generally agreement, or more accurately amazement, at the foresight and forward thinking shown by the writer. everyone was astonished, even a little disbelieving, that it was written in 1948.

the astonishment arose because the author manages to anticipate, or possibly invent, the politics of the late 1980s and 90s, 40 years before it became mainstream. why do i say that? well here’s the evidence
– before post-modernism was invented he tells his story from all sides, the radical white son, the conservative white farmer dad, the old black priest, the young black gangster, the black johannesburg activist, the johannesburg prostitute, the old black mother, the young black girl, the black chief, the bishop, even a small white wealthy young boy
– almost 15 years before rachel carson’s silent spring and the birth of modern environmentalism he puts a big emphasis on repairing the ruined land
– while gandhi was still alive, and before non-violence was a globally recognised tactic, he raises the choice facing any firebrand liberation speaker, do you lead you people into confrontation and violence with the authorities or do you have patience?
– with 50 years of hindsight, including almost 20 years of the post apartheid south africa, it very hard to see that he got anything wrong in his description of the country, its problems, people or complexities

so after praise like that why would the bookgroup be a little lukewarm, why werent we all just unreservedly gushing in our praise?

perhaps its the human condition – we were distracted by concern over style, and that triumphed our admiration of the substance.

although paton’s politics could easily pass muster in the 21st century, his language and the dramatic structure, the plot, couldnt. both were beautiful but they were firmly rooted in their time.

the language was the politeness of an african diplomat, raised in an english boarding school and walking the red carpets of the UN for a decade or two. it may have been accurate for its time, but to us it felt stiff and aloof.

the plot was as symmetrical as a merry-go-round, and as full of miraculous co-incidences as a james bond opening sequence. all these co-incidences had a purpose, they were beautifully contrived to reveal the issues described. nevertheless, to the modern reader it was too neat. it created a fairy tale quality that rasped uncomfortably against what was otherwise an almost perfectly observed gritty, and realistic, historical novel.


February 25, 2009 at 11:22 am Leave a comment


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