Book of the week: Paton's stories

2008-08-13 00:00

According to a short preface this volume brings together all of Alan Paton’s “work in the short-story form”. Most of the items are drawnfrom his collection of short stories Debbie Go Home (1961) and a 1975 volume, Knocking on the Door. In all there are 21 pieces ranging from the idiosyncratic “Interview with Himself” (exactly what it says it is) to the untitled five-line story written for the Sunday Times to initiate its 1985 “Great South African Mini-Saga competition”.

Paton’s writing style is spare and direct and the majority of his stories take their flavour from their time: apartheid South Africa. The chilling “Life for a Life” details the rough justice meted out in a Karoo valley; “A Drink in the Passage”, the poignant absurdities of enforced racial separation. Many reflect Paton’s own experience. He was principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for delinquent African boys from 1935 until 1948, when the success of Cry, the Beloved Country made it possible to live by his writing, and a cluster of six stories reflect this time, notably “Sponono” and “Death of a Tsotsi”. These stories have a documentary ring of truth, especially “The Divided House”, which features a boy torn between the call to crime and the call to be a priest.

One story at least is clearly autobiographical. “The Gift” relates an incident that occurred when Paton, aged six, was a pupil at Berg Street Girls’ School in Pietermaritzburg — now Russell High School — then attended by both boys and girls for the first three years. On a cold day Paton’s mother sent a young black servant to the school with a basket containing hot cocoa and scones for the young Paton. He was so embarrassed he denied knowing the servant and the food was shared out by the other children.

The title story, “The Hero of Currie Road”, follows the ironic fortunes of a non-racist liberal and member of the All-Races Party, who finds an address he is invited to give to the “South African Congress” founders when it fails to conform to the expected political formulas. An ironic echo of Paton’s leadership of the Liberal Party.

It would be easy to see these stories as period pieces but fortunately the majority have a core integrity that reflects Paton’s own stated dictum that “you must put your story first, not your politics or religion or your anger”.

Stephen Coan

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