The Hero of Currie Road: Complete Short Pieces, by Alan Paton (Umuzi, 2008)
[Review originally published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 24 August 2008]
The Hero of Currie Road collects a variety of short pieces by Alan Paton: short stories, biographical pieces and the odd miscellania, all from Debbie Go Home/ Tales from a Troubled Land (1961) and Knocking on the Door (1975). In short, all Paton’s short pieces are now available in one volume. The end pages include brief notes about either a story’s print publication date or when it was read first by Paton, and so the volume is a convenient source for literary historians.
Not having been a fan of Cry, the Beloved Country when I was a university student, and therefore not having read any Paton beyond that, I nevertheless approached the volume with a degree of openness. Youth, after all, can be blind in its passions.
The volume opens with an “Interview with Himself”, in which Paton asserts both the autonomy of the art of storytelling, as well as the necessity of the art reflecting the real world. In other words, the art of storytelling will not be art if it does not also reflect the real world, or issues in the real world. In the South Africa of his time – and beyond, right up to the present – that means an art of storytelling fully aware of the world in which it is told.
The story that then strikes me as the best example of what Paton means is “The Magistrate’s Daughter”. Set in a rural dorp, the protagonist is a blacksmith’s teenage son, Archie Garland, who falls hopelessly in love with Hermione, the magistrate’s daughter. As Archie eventually wins an invitation to tennis from Hermione’s brother, his experiences at the magistrate’s house indicate an uneasy relationship between a rural aristocracy (magistrate and the rich farmers) and people like his father, an artisan. The critique of class and social distinctions are not delivered with hammer blows, but are rendered as natural aspects of the story. Even Archie’s sister’s critiques of class distinctions are made a natural part of the storytelling because, in the story, she teases him about Hermione’s unattainability.
It is a poignant story, made more so by the strange and estranging feel of an old world time, a rural social world clearly aligned on old British colonial lines. And even if the story has an air of quaint innocence to it, you know that Archie will hurt for a long time afterwards, because the hurt, the character, the plot, all are rendered as believable.
But the quaint innocence mars other pieces, especially the various autobiographical pieces from Paton’s experiences as principal at Diepkloof Reformatory. While structurally, and necessarily, in a paternal relationship with his wards, Paton has all the good intentions in the world, but he approaches problems with some of the boys with such innocence and ignorance, that he cannot see his own paternalism. In “Death of a Tsotsi”, Spike speaks to the principal about being threatened by others if he reforms. Specifically, the process of reform is seen by Spike’s threatening friend as going “back to being a child”, and Paton’s response to it is woefully inadequate: “You are going forward to being a man.”
The point here is that, for all his good intentions, Paton is scuttled by the fact that he does not know and understand this other, black world for which he seeks to act honourably and justly, and ends up, really, in his position as paternalistic Liberal. It is indeed like a parent trying to help a troubled child, but having no clue as to what the trouble really is. His views on the effects of dagga are, for instance, quite laughable:
And that of course is the great sign, after the smell of weed itself; for the humble come out with sudden insolence, and the obedient with sudden disobedience, the open-hearted become secretive, the gay sullen. (“The Divided House”)
While one, naturally, has to read with some sensitivity towards the period, one also reads to see how much past writers see beyond their period. Paton was perhaps caught up in his politics of good intentions without understanding, actually, the world around him.