Author: Alan Paton
It seems only yesterday that I was sitting in a room with magnificent souls listening to artists from across Soweto talk about their passion for the art. Then one of those artists, a female dancer whose name I do not remember, asked me which field of art I was in and it was only when she asked this question that I realised that I have never had an answer for it. Whether this was because I did not know the answer to the question, or because I had not yet acquired the vocabulary to express it in, I do not know, but I had a very difficult time answering that question. It was only a week later, when I came across the book “Towards the Mountain” by Alan Paton that I began to understand what “my art” really was.
‘My art,’ if anyone can call it that, is enjoying art. I spend most of my time consuming the products of artistic minds like those of Alan Paton and it is books like “Towards the Mountain” that prove this definition of mine true and make me enjoy what I do even more. Like many of the books that I have read so far, “Towards the Mountain” is a book I came across by pure chance. The name Alan Paton, before my encounter with this book, was one I usually came across in the past but didn’t mean much to me. It was one of those names that everyone knew but I never took interest in getting to know myself; which is something I now look back on with great regret.
An autobiography of Alan Paton, “Towards the Mountain” is one of the most poetic and captivating bodies of work I have ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1980, this book takes the reader into the life of one of the most celebrated and world renowned South African writers of all time. Only describable as a guided tour by the man himself into the life of an impeccable wordsmith, this book takes you on a journey into the life of a man who had the awe inducing ability to put into words the world as he saw it to be; and what was more was that he managed to do this without sounding like a man chronologically reporting the events that transpired in his life.
In the book Alan Paton earnestly writes about his life as a man who was driven by a passion to serve others. He begins the book with telling the story of his life as a young person growing up in Pietermaritzburg, Natal. He writes about the passion for liberty and freedom – which he derived from the despise he acquired as a young man of his father’s use of violence to assert authority – that consumed his life as a young man growing up in a strict Christadelphian family. A lover of literature and a man with a command for the English language that always leaves one in total awe, all of these recollections are done in one of the most poetic and, to some extent, simplistic ways I have ever come across, and I believe this is one of the things that makes this book so special.
He continues by describing his years as an English speaking white man in South Africa and all his encounters with different people from different ethnicities and races in both his university and post-university life. A section of his life that had the biggest impact for his latter career as a writer, and which he spends a tremendous amount of time writing about – chapter 18 to chapter 23, and he continues to mention it in the subsequent chapters – is the time he spent as the principal of the Diepkloof reformatory. He writes that it was some of the experiences he had during those 13 years of his life that influenced a lot of his writing, and that some of the storylines and characters for some of his writing – including for his world renowned novel “Cry, the Beloved Country” – were inspired by the people and the events of those years. He writes:
“It was inevitable that the reformatory would play a great part in the story [Cry, the Beloved Country], and equally inevitable that the city of Johannesburg and the far distant country would do so…”
As you go through this poetic journey into this man’s life you will be confronted by the idea that Alan Paton was a man in constant battle with the emotional conflicts caused by the state in which race issues were in in the country at the time. He was constantly trying to figure out his role in the betterment of the country, and he found some guidance through his religious life. Some of the people he interacted with also played a major role in shaping his ideology and developing his role as a member of society who will play out his role in the development and betterment of his home country.
One major lesson that I picked up from this book – which I doubt he intended to deliver with through book, not that I believe he had any lesson he was trying to deliver through the book anyway – was that if the African community does not begin to tell its own stories they will be lost forever. I came to this lesson after reading parts of the book where Alan himself describes how little he knew of the African community. This became clear when he writes: “why a delinquent boy from a derelict home should have come to cherish, almost fiercely, such qualities as punctuality, reliability, loyalty, and honesty I do not claim to understand” when he was describing an African boy in the reformatory who turned out to become an outstanding member of his community.
He was a man who believed that all people were equal and even wrote many stories about the injustices that African people went through during those times, but the one thing that made him different from many people who did the same thing during those times, and many who do the same thing now, is that he was aware of his lack of knowledge about the everyday lives of the people who were the main subjects of many of his works. He was a man who knew his role and played it to the best of his ability and this book is a deeper look into that truth. It is a brilliant read and a must read for all South Africans.