Why the Phalarope?
It's me. I know it's me. Everyone else says this book is a classic. I don't see that. Maybe, I'm just too stupid to understand. Anyway, take it for whatever it's worth. Here's my take on Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope.
Too Late the Phalarope, by Alan Paton is an English teacher’s dream book. Any teacher of literature would examine the complex society of Apartheid South Africa, the rigid culture mores, the main character’s humanity, and appreciate the beautiful descriptions of the country, and the moral dilemmas the plot purposes.
That being said, most students will hate this book. I also found it painful to read. Try as I might, I could not identify with any characters. I didn’t know what they were talking about, most of the time. The narration is convoluted. A quarter of the way into the novel, I forced myself to begin again, because I was so confused. I didn’t know who the narrator was. Sometimes it was Pieter van Vlaanderen’s aunt. Sometimes it was his journal. Then again, was it Pieter’s stream of consciousness?
The story begins with Pieter, an Afrikaner policeman. His chosen persona is “stiff upper lip”, high moral standards, and a “rules are rules”, type of person. However, good people sometimes do bad things, and he did. (Spoiler Alert) He rapes Stephanie. A white man having sex with a black, at that time was not permitted. Pieter is also married, so he’s breaking his marital vows, besides the country’s law. Paton doesn’t mention the verb, rape. It was clear, Pieter a white male had sexual intercourse with a black woman. Since blacks were held in a subservient position, I call it rape. His father is so upset, he disowns Pieter. In effect, Pieter has broken more than the law. He has destroyed his own family.
What I did enjoy in the novel, was Pieter’s turmoil with his conscience. The poor man was twisting himself in spiritual, mental, and emotional knots. At first, Pieter thought everyone knew his sinful deed. When nothing happened the relief he felt was palpable. It was short lived, however. Pieter fails everyone who was dear to him, and everything that was important to him. He is exposed, arrested, and guilty. The emotional and mental anguish was an excellent description of human soul wrenching. This was a redeeming feature of Paton’s writing and story.
I just could not identify with the characters, however. I felt sorry for Pieter, but his life was so unreal to me that my sympathy was not empathetic. The culture was so foreign it was unbelievable. The extreme segregation was out of my frame of reference. The father’s reaction was beyond understanding. What about Pieter’s wife and children? I just didn’t get it, so I didn’t like it. The language itself was awkward. I found the entire book too difficult to read. I had to force myself to finish it.
The title, Too Late The Phalarope, is further proof that this book is a difficult read. From the story, the reader learns that a phalarope is a South African bird. But what the title, “Too Late the Phalarope,” means, is a mystery. I even googled and researched. I don’t have the slightest clue what the title means, which is indicative of my critique of Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope.