Alan Paten, beyond pretense at 77, frankly and plainly lays out his life up to its two major turning points, the triumphant...



Alan Paten, beyond pretense at 77, frankly and plainly lays out his life up to its two major turning points, the triumphant publication in 1948 of Cry, the Beloved Country and the grim electoral triumph, that year, of Afrikaner nationalism. It is not the life of a writer or a prophet. Paten grew up in Natal as the small-sized, precocious son of a pettishly authoritarian father, whom he hated, and the heir to a stem sectarian religiosity, whose ""greater moralities"" he never abandoned. He was devoted to his schools and college; shy of girls (until taken in hand by an older gamine); and beginning with his worship of an idealistic young teacher of Africans, convinced that ""life must be used in the service of a cause greater than oneself."" But in one of many flash-forwards--and fine discriminations--he notes that this cynosure later thought Paton's concern with the quality of black education ""extreme."" Paten in turn found himself to be a ""born teacher""--of an impish, anti-authoritarian bent--and also came to feel (via a YMCA analogue) ""responsible for society."" White society, he is quick to add; and just as quickly he identifies among his motives ""vanity and ambition."" (""Society is a big pond in which to swim and display one's aptitudes."") Inspired by a book on delinquents and restless after a long illness, he applied for the principalship of one of the national reformatories--and was assigned to the least desirable, Diepkloof, the one for young Africans. The 14 years he spent humanizing ""this foul place""--opening the cells, installing latrines, allowing cigarettes, permitting long-timers the freedom of the 900-acre farm--while retaining the allegiance of his Afrikaner staff are a study in shrewd, decisive, unsentimental administrative reform. Outside, the South African political balance was shifting. Paton had learned Afrikaans; he sympathized with underclass Afrikaner aspirations. But the 1938 Centenary of the Great Trek culminated in a mass demonstration--to which Paton, suitably bearded, had taken the reformatory wagon and oxen--whose ""fervour and exclusiveness"" appalled him: the generalShip was passing from the biracial Hertzog and the internationalist Smuts to the chauvinist (and apostle of apartheid) Malan. Paton's personal fortunes turned during an international study-tour of prisons. He was in Trondheim, stirred by the cathedral and acutely homesick; and back in his hotel--unanticipated by anything here--he wrote the first chapter of Cry, the Beloved Country. That book's lyricism and intensity are absent; instead, we have high purpose presented with self-measuring aplomb.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Scribners

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1980