Saturday, January 7, 2012

Title Chase: Cry, the Beloved Country

There are a few things I always pay attention to when reading any book. If it happens to have an interesting title, one of the things I keep an eye out for is the passage where the title originates.

Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country was a book that had spent a few years on my bookshelf before I finally cracked it open. And I'd always wondered where that particular title could have come from. Certainly not in dialogue- people just don't talk that way. And it didn't sound like any sort of standard narrative description, so what then? Maybe a song? A Poem? I just didn't know.

Turns out it comes from Paton's use of intercalary chapters to tell his story. Intercalary chapters are simply passages that are inserted in between various sections of the narrative to expand the scope or provide context for the central characters and their story. Rather than disturb the flow, they're meant to create a mood, or show flashes of what's happening in the larger world. In Cry, the Beloved Country, intercalaries are used to cast Stephen Kumalo's story against the backdrop of percolating racial tensions in South Africa, and against the ruthless gravitational pull that large cities seem to exert on the rural poor.

The effect is pure awesomeness. Here's the intercalary passage that gave the book its title:
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
But I'm not alone in thinking it's a great title. There's an interesting story about how this exact passage was chosen. Paton was staying with two acquaintances in California, on the condition that they read his manuscript. When they finished it they asked him what he would call it. He suggested that they have a little competition. Each of them would write their own proposed title, and then they would compare notes. When they showed each other their suggestions, all three of them had written "Cry, the Beloved Country."

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