Despite its originality and unique qualities, Cry, The Beloved Country inevitably has books that lighted its way, some of which Alan Paton himself acknowledged.
What Came Before
The chief influence is certainly the Bible: Paton's style is soaked in the language of the King James Version. Cry, The Beloved Country constantly echoes Biblical phrases and Biblical cadences, as well as shows Biblical influence in details of its plot. Apart from this fundamental influence, in its central story—which follows the journey of the old priest from the countryside to the city—Cry, The Beloved Country mirrors many South African stories which concern a rural African's traumatic encounter with big city life. Examples of such forerunners include Douglas Blackburn's Leaven: A Black and White Story (1908), William Plomer's brilliant story 'Ula Masondo' (1927) and R. R. R. Dhlomo's An African Tragedy (1928).
Novels Paton Admired
But there were also other influences from world literature. Paton had longed to see Norway ever since reading the novels of Knut Hamsun. Hamsun's best-known work is Hunger (1890), but he had written many others, including a book that had a major impact on Paton, Growth of the Soil. The plot tells of a peasant, Isak, whose wife Inger kills one of her children, is sent to prison in Trondheim, and after some years returns with big city ideas that spoil her. Paton began writing Cry, the Beloved Country in Norway, to which he had been drawn by reading Hamsun's novel, and it is no surprise that his own book should have taken as a major theme the corruption of peasants drawn to the city's bright lights and febrile society.
Paton was also influenced by Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. With its farming family fleeing the dust-bowl for the promised land of California, it seems to have appealed to him as a profound myth of the journey and search which are central to Cry, the Beloved Country. And Steinbeck had another more minor influence too: Paton was taken by Steinbeck's habit of indicating speech by a preliminary dash, rather than by inverted commas, a trick Steinbeck had imitated from Joyce. After using inverted commas in the first few pages of his manuscript, Paton switched to the Joycean dash, and used it thereafter not just in Cry but in all his subsequent fiction.
What Paton Gave Others
Paton's influence on other writers is chiefly indirect: Cry, The Beloved Country is not a novel that could have been imitated directly. But every South African novelist after Paton has had to take account of it. Writers such as Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee have commented on Paton's work in their critical writing, but their fiction has mainly responded to him by indirect reaction. Gordimer, in July's People, ran Paton's plot in reverse: where his black protagonist is bewildered by contact with the white city, her white protagonists are forced into intimate contact with black rural culture, and they both suffer and learn from the exchange. Coetzee, recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, plays the same plot-reversals, more subtly and variously, in such novels as Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace.
Published on January 01, 2006