One of the earliest proponents of racial equality in his native South Africa, Alan Paton first came into the public eye in 1948 with his novel Cry, the Beloved Country. A landmark publication for its time, the novel follows the fate of a young black African, Absalom Kumalo, who, having murdered a white citizen, "cannot be judged justly without taking into account the environment that has partly shaped him, " as Edmund Fuller writes in his book Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing. The environment in question is typified by the hostility and squalid living conditions facing most of South Africa's nonwhites, victims of South Africa's system of apartheid.
"Three artistic qualities ofCry, the Beloved Country combine to make it an original and unique work of art, " Edward Callan notes in his study Alan Paton. "First, the poetic elements in the language of some of the characters; second, the lyric passages spoken from outside the action, like the well-known opening chapter; and third, the dramatic choral chapters that seem to break the sequence of the story for social commentary, but which in fact widen the horizon of the particular segments of action to embrace the whole land, as well as such universal concerns as fear, hate, and justice."
In assessing Paton's work, Callan compares the author to American poet Robert Frost. Paton's art, says Callan, "is related to South Africa as Robert Frost's is to New England. Both of these writers work within the framework of an external landscape where they know all the flowers and shrubs, birds and animals, by their familiar names. As observers of the human inhabitants of these landscapes, both writers recognize the profound aspirations of human personality; and both communicate their insights in language that is fresh and simple, yet vibrant with meaning."
Paton followed Cry, the Beloved Country with another socially conscious novel, Too Late the Phalarope. This volume centers on a white Afrikaner, Pieter, whose youthful idealism has tragic consequences. The story hinges on Pieter's love affair with a black girl; according to Alfred Kazin in the New York Times Book Review, "Under the `Immorality Act' of the country, sexual relations between whites and blacks are a legal offense." As Kazin goes on to explain, "Pieter is sent to prison, his father strikes [the youth's] name from the great family Bible and dies of shame, and the whole family withdraws from the community in horror at Pieter's crime `against the race.'"
"Invariably, comparisons [of Too Late the Phalarope] with The Scarlet Letter and Crime and Punishment arise, " as Fuller points out in another work, Books with Men behind Them. "Once Pieter has committed his act, there is no possible release for him but total exposure--a dilemma he shares in part with [The Scarlet Letter's] Arthur Dimmesdale and [Crime and Punishment's] Raskolnikov. Paton gives us a long sequence of superb suspense, arising out of guilty misunderstandings of innocent natural coincidences. But just as the death wish is commonly unconscious, so Pieter suffers an agonized dread of discovery, unconscious of the fact that it is that exposure and its consequences that have motivated him from the start."
A handful of nonfiction works and biographies followed Paton's second novel, but the author received more critical attention for his 1981 book, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, which was his first novel in 28 years. The story opens with an act of quiet rebellion. An Indian teenager named Prem enters the Durban Library in Natal, South Africa, and sits down to read. Since she is not white, she is barred from using the facility. However, Prem defies the authorities, and her struggle ignites the embryonic anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1950s. The story goes on to trace the history of such organizations as the Liberal Party (of which Paton was president from 1958 to 1968).
As Chicago Tribune Book World reviewer Charles R. Larson sees it, the novel "fairly groans under the weight of human misery and havoc." He also states that "readers unfamiliar with the horrors of South African politics may be shocked to learn of apartheid legislation against racial mixing at every level of human contact--including funerals and religious services." "Paton's determination to expose injustice is so overwhelming that too often his characters have little life beyond their roles in his morality drama, " John Rechy writes in a Los Angeles Times Book Review article. "Emphasizing their admirable hope and courage, he at times denies them the full, defining power of their rage. The unfortunate result is that the evil, too, becomes faceless; a disembodied voice of inquisition barking out injustice." But whatever artistic criticism he has for Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, Rechy concludes that he "respectfully [envies] Paton's courageous hopefulness, which has allowed him, at age 78 [at the time of publication] to continue to believe that justice may prevail in his beautiful land of entrenched evil."
Newsweek critic Peter S. Prescott sees in Paton's dispassionate style an advantage to the novel's message: the author "offers no diversions, no digressions, no scenes designed to build character, to set a time or place, except as they are shaped by his obsession with this appalling injustice. That in itself would make [Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful] extraordinary; what makes it more so is his ability to keep such a story light and dramatic." In a similar vein, John Romano points out in a New York Times Book Review piece that in Paton's novel "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 author's faith, Romano adds, "is not a religious one, but a faith in the function, the usefulness of personal sympathy.... [Paton's] considerable practical contributions to political life in South Africa aside, his place in the literature of social protest has been secured by his steady devotion to the ideal of the empathetic imagination in fiction."
Originally Paton had hoped to make Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful the first part of a trilogy of novels about South African race relations. Weakened by a heart condition, however, he concentrated on his autobiography. He finished the first volume, Towards the Mountain, in 1980, and the second, Journey Continued, just before his death in 1988. The books describe Paton's early years as an educator, when he observed the social inequities that prompted Cry, The Beloved Country, and his later involvement with the Liberal party, which dissolved in 1968 rather than purge its nonwhite members as the government demanded. In his last years Paton was criticized by many anti-apartheid activists because he opposed their efforts to pressure the government by discouraging foreign investment in South Africa. Such sanctions, Paton argued, would unduly punish South Africa's poorest blacks, and he decried even Nobel Prize-winning clergyman Desmond Tutu for supporting such a strategy. Though controversial, Paton saw his actions as consistent with a lifelong belief in progress through moderation and mutual understanding. As he wrote in Journey Continued: "By liberalism I don't mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance for authoritarianism and a love of freedom."
From: "Alan (Stewart) Paton." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.