The name Alan Paton will ever be associated with South Africa, that hauntingly beautiful land at Africa's southern tip. There are many physical facets to South Africa: the austere grandeur of the parched Karoo; the mellow vineyards of the Cape Peninsula, commanded by Table Mountain; the wind tugging a cloth of cloud across its flat surface.
But when I was a correspondent in South Africa, a special pleasure was to be in the subtropical province of Natal, and wind my way up the highway to the little town of Kloof, there to chat with Alan Paton. The countryside is lush. Paton's house is set amid an exploding frieze of poinsettias and tropical greenery. But it is the conversation, not so much the scenery, that grips one.
It is conversation clear, compassionate, Christian, in a country whose racial problem sometimes seems to defy clarity, to lack compassion, and to have passed Christianity by.
A tough, almost dour, little man, the son of a Scottish emigrant, Paton has never wavered in his gutsy Christianity. He believes that racial arrogance must crumble in South Africa, but he is no wilting and sentimental liberal. He has great understanding for the fears of Afrikaner nationalism, even though its politicians who run South Africa have harassed and hobbled him. He understands the uncertainties of English South Africans from whose ranks he himself has come. And though he campaigns for equal rights for nonwhites, he is pragmatic and realistic about their frailties and failings. This pragmatism stems largely from his many years as chief of South Africa's largest reformatory for African boys.
It was this experience that provided the grist for "Cry, the Beloved Country, " the book that made him famous. This first volume of his autobiography tells the story. Mr. Paton had moved from schoolmastering in Natal to a reformist role in the South African prison system. He sought to be head of the prison service, so he took a year to study prisons abroad. In Europe, homesick for wife, child, and country, he set down the first sentence of "Cry, the Beloved Country." And the next, and the next. In hotel rooms at night, as he moved on across the United States, the book flowed.
It was finished. It became a best seller. Mr. Paton left his Diepkloof reformatory for writing and politics in a changing South Africa where Jan Christiaan Smuts, the internationalist, had been swept aside by the forces of Afrikaner nationalism.
This is about where "Towards the Mountain" leaves us. We are promised another volume that will go into his later career as leader of the Liberal Party in South Africa and his running fight with the government and security police.
Paton believes that writing is truth, so there are frank passages about his poor relationship with his authoritarian father, and some fleeting early sexual encounters.
In many ways, the coming volume of his autobiography may be more dramatic than this first one, which takes us from his early days in Natal, through the reformatory experience, to his international travels and the writing of "Cry, the Beloved Country." But no Paton fan will want to miss this one.