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Barron's Booknotes-Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

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CHAPTER 2

In Chapter 2 you meet Reverend Stephen Kumalo. A little girl makes it clear that he is respected. She hesitates to enter "so important a house" as his, courteously addresses him not by name but as "umfundisi" (Reverend), and only then says she has brought something from the white man at the store. The name Kumalo, the word umfundisi, and the mention that the sender is white indicate that Kumalo must be black. His language also suggests a nonwhite culture, when he kindly sends the little girl to "the mother," his wife, for something to eat.

Only then does he look at what the child has given him. It's a letter, shabby from passing through many hands. Before opening it, he thinks about his brother John, a carpenter, who has a business now in Johannesburg. His sister Gertrude, 25 years younger than he, is in Johannesburg, too. She took her little boy and went to look for her missing husband. His only son, Absalom, went there also. None have returned, and neither have other relatives. It's as if the city had swallowed them up.



NOTE: ABSALOM AND OTHER NAMES Absalom is such an unusual name that you can be sure you're meant to think of the Absalom of the Bible. A favorite son of King David, he was a handsome young man proud of his long, luxuriant hair. The story, told in 2 Samuel, depicts Absalom as restless and wicked. David ignored Absalom's insults until he joined David's enemies in armed rebellion. Ironically, his spectacular hair caused Absalom's downfall. He rode beneath a tree, and his flowing hair caught in a branch. David's men were able to kill him as he hung there. Instead of rejoicing, David bitterly mourned Absalom's death. Absalom Kumalo has already caused his father grief by disappearing to Johannesburg, and the Bible story is so famous that the very name Absalom suggests trouble to come-perhaps even the boy's death.

Other characters in the novel have names from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, but they don't leap out at you because the names are more common than Absalom. One, for example, is Stephen. The Stephen in the Bible was a deacon of the early church. His job was to handle members' complaints. A courageous man, he became the first Christian martyr when he was stoned to death for his beliefs. There are two Johns in the Gospels. One is John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, a preacher who attracted huge crowds. The other John was an apostle, the hot-tempered son of Zebedee and brother of James, an equally hottempered man. Both brothers, originally fishermen, became leaders in the early church. John was also known as an apostle especially close to and loved by Jesus. Another name that will come up in Cry, the Beloved Country is Matthew, a tax collector at the time of Jesus. People hated tax collectors for routinely extorting additional money for their own use, but Jesus made Matthew an apostle anyway.

You will also find the name Arthur in the novel. Arthur is not a biblical name, but to English-speaking people it suggests King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot. Arthur, like Jesus Christ, had both a mission in life and devoted disciples.

Kumalo is reluctant to open the letter. He obviously doesn't receive many. His reaction is the kind people had years ago when the telephone operator would say, "long distance calling." In the early days of telephones, long distance calls usually meant bad news. Naturally enough, therefore, people panicked at receiving a long distance call. Kumalo has that kind of reaction to the letter. He examines it from every angle and even asks his wife if she'd been expecting one. Then she starts guessing, too. They both seem to hope it has to do with Absalom. Mrs. Kumalo finally opens it, "reading as a Zulu who reads English."

NOTE: ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE "Zulu" completes the identification of the Kumalos as blacks. The Zulu are a large ethnic group whose language belongs to the Bantu family of languages. Many Bantu-speakers in South Africa also speak Afrikaans or English. The Kumalos obviously read English, but seem awkward with it, as one often is with a second language.

The letter is from the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu. It's short and to the point. Msimangu wants Kumalo to come to Sophiatown in Johannesburg at once, because Kumalo's sister, Gertrude, is sick. The Kumalos are silent for awhile, and you can imagine why. The reports from Johannesburg make the city seem dangerous. Still, what can they do? This concerns family. They have a cocoa tin containing money set aside for Absalom's education at a school called St. Chad's. Kumalo says he can't use it, but his wife asks why not? Absalom won't be using it. Why does that make Kumalo angry? If you've ever deliberately chosen not to face something, you understand why. He could kid himself that his son would come back as long as he never admitted aloud that the boy was gone for good. The truth hurts, so he shouts at his wife as if it were her fault that nobody writes.

But Kumalo quickly calms down. He agrees to use the money. It's not all that much-at 1946 exchange rates, 12 pounds, 5 shillings, and 7 pence came to about $50 in U.S. currency. He thinks he can manage on two thirds of it, but his wife is more realistic. She urges him to take it all, and also another 10 pounds (about $40) they've been saving. Her sense of duty must be strong: they need the money for a stove or clothes. But the decision is made, and Kumalo will notify the Bishop about his absence from St. Mark's. He goes off to pray, and she lays her head on the table. What does that simple action manage somehow to suggest to you?

A line of asterisks on the page marks the passage of time. The narrator quotes what sounds like a saying, "All roads lead to Johannesburg." It echoes "All roads lead to Rome," and suggests how important a city Johannesburg must be for South Africans. The narrator says trains head there all night long on tracks cut through hills and valleys, while the country sleeps, and adds, "Happy the eyes that can close." This could simply mean the ride is rough, but it's more likely a different way of stating the idea that people without worries are lucky.

NOTE: JOHANNESBURG Johannesburg is a major hub of South Africa's transportation network, as the last paragraph of Chapter 2 suggests. It isn't the country's capital, but it is the largest city and a leading manufacturing and banking center. The richest gold strikes in South African history occurred in the Johannesburg area, and gold miners established the city near their claims in 1886. Today Johannesburg is still the center of the important South African gold-mining industry.

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