In Chapter 1 the narrator stands on a hill, looking around at valleys and mountains, a river and hills. Some names, like the Zulu Umzimkulu (a river and valley in Natal), and some words, like the Afrikaans kloof (a ravine), establish the South African setting. The Drakensberg (which means “dragon mountains”) is a large mountain range dividing the Orange Free State from Natal. The narrator says that in the hills of Natal the soil is so rich it seems “holy, being even as it came from the Creator.” Nothing has been done to harm it. But in the valley below, the land is red and bare. Sharp stones and grass hurt the feet. Food is so scarce that even the titihoya bird has left. The maize (corn) does not grow tall, and the red earth is so eroded that when it rains the muddy land seems to flow with blood. The land is ruined, and so are families. Men and young people have gone somewhere else, and only old people, women, and children stay. What has caused the damage to the land and desertion by the young? You’ll see in coming chapters.
At this point you can’t tell who is speaking to you–a situation that means the book is written from a point of view called third person omniscient narration. That is, some all-knowing viewer outside the story, someone you won’t really be conscious of as the story continues, is telling it. This narrator is not the author himself, but a story-teller created by the author. This will become more important later. The author, Paton, wants you to enter the mind of a third person, reliable narrator. This narrator must be a black South African. Paton must distance himself from his own background.
The language of the narrator is beautiful. You’ll immediately notice its difference from ordinary English. Its patterns are meant to echo African languages and parts of the Bible. This style will be used not only by the all-knowing story-teller, but also by the man we meet in Chapter 2–a man whose first language is Zulu, one of the Bantu family of languages, and whose second language, English, he encounters mostly in the Bible. Kumalu, the narrator, is one of the most extraordinary protagonist in all of world literature.