It is a curious thing that while so many critics are busy telling each other that literature is a linguistic game, that novels are purely formal structures and that their pretensions to represent the world are illusory, novelists continue to write what in any serious sense must be considered historical novels. By a historical novel I mean, not period romance, but a fiction that is tied by close and numerous links to a real place at a real time, its essence being to tell a truth about an independently verifiable world, outside the realm of fiction. One of the most famous of these came out in 1948: it was Alan Paton's Cry, the beloved country, so intimately bound up with South African history that Paton had to write a preface to distinguish those parts which are formally fiction. 'As a social record,' he concluded, 'it is the plain and simple truth.' Of course it is not merely a social record: it is the deeply imagined story of an individual life. And Paton has had to devise a language to tell the story in, for the simple Zulu parson who is the protagonist does not deal in the current coin of modern English speech. So that the literary question was as demanding as the historical one; the political act cannot be separated from the work of art. Now, after thirty years, comes Ah, but your land is beautiful, with similar themes and settings, the date of the action a few years later, the conflicts more distinctly those of the modern world. And though the continuity with Paton's earlier work is complete, this is a different kind of book. Cry, the beloved country is an exploration both of the racial problem and of personal suffering; and its quasi-Biblical language is a means of penetrating into a sorrowful and bewildered consciousness. Ah, but your land is beautiful is a panorama, a chronicle, with a wide variety of characters and the interest distributed between them. It is a less lyrical and more political book, in part an evident roman-à-clef. The period is the 1950s, the time of the Passive Resistance campaign, the Sophiatown removals, the emergence of the South African Liberal Party and the early stages of the Nationalist government.
LRB 3 December 1981 | PDF Download