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  • Alan Paton and the Novel of South African Liberalism: Too Late the Phalarope

Despite a long, productive career in literature and public life, Alan Paton remains known outside South Africa largely as the author of a single book. The extraordinary and long-lasting international success of his first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), not only established Paton’s reputation as an influential interpreter of South African society and politics to the rest of the world but, ironically, also worked to eclipse his subsequent literary production both in his own country and abroad. Except in specialized studies and monographs, of which there have been surprisingly few, Paton’s other writings have attracted scant critical attention. Within South Africa, Paton’s work has not been so much neglected as it has been submitted to revisionist ideological critique. Recent studies by South African scholars have focused on Paton’s liberalism and have criticized his fiction on the grounds of its inadequate historical vision and its commitment to an outmoded politics of Christian humanism—what Tony Morphet calls “the politics of innocence” (9). 1

Even in South Africa, however, attention has centered primarily on Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton’s second and, to my mind, more successful novel, Too Late the Phalarope, has received neither the recognition nor the serious critical scrutiny that a work of its complexity [End Page 681] deserves. Like its predecessor, Too Late the Phalarope exhibits contradictions and ideological blind spots that are symptomatic of South African liberalism and of the early 1950s in particular. Yet, to a greater extent than the earlier novel, it registers an awareness of those contradictions and draws attention, through its narrative form, to the need for a broader political and historical perspective.

Written over a two-year period from 1951–52 and published in August 1953, 2 Too Late the Phalarope tells the story of a white South African policeman, Pieter van Vlaanderen, whose career and reputation are ruined when it is revealed that he has had a sexual relationship with a mixed-race woman named Stephanie. An Afrikaner and the son of a fiercely conservative Afrikaner nationalist father, Pieter brings disgrace and destruction by this act both on himself and on his entire family. Not only is he found guilty of violating the Immorality Act of 1927, which forbids interracial sex, but he is also disowned by his father for having offended against the ultra-nationalist ideal of racial purity. Within a week after having struck his son’s name from the family Bible, the father dies, leaving the rest of the family to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Handsome, devout, and widely admired for his leadership qualities as well as his prowess on the rugby field, Pieter van Vlaanderen epitomizes in every outward respect the cultural ideals of his community. His downfall, the novel seems to imply, is both a personal tragedy and the prelude to a larger cultural tragedy that threatens to strike the Afrikaner volk as a whole if they do not change their ways. Such, at any rate, is the view of Pieter’s aunt Sophie, who, as narrator, provides a retrospective account of these events. Drawing on Pieter’s secret journals, to which she gains access after his disgrace is made public, Tante Sophie sets out to piece together the story of her nephew’s self-destructive behavior. In so doing, she is motivated both by her guilt at having failed to prevent Pieter’s tragedy and by the wish to promote an ethos of mercy, in contrast to the stern Puritan law of judgment that condemns him. The result of her investigation—the text of the novel—is a complex psychological portrait, at once sympathetic and forgiving in its exploration of Pieter’s transgressions. [End Page 682]

The novel is set in the recent past in a small market town in the eastern Transvaal. While no specific date is mentioned for the events of the story, they can be located with some degree of certainty in the years between 1946 and 1948. The World War is over, and Pieter and the other South African soldiers who volunteered to go...

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