Van der Posture

J.D.F. Jones

  • Yet Being Someone Other by Laurens van der Post
    Hogarth, 352 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7012 1900 9

I’m beginning to feel more and more strongly about the more spiritual aspect of lift ... I’ve found the writings of C.G. Jung absolutely fascinating and very much an inspiration and a help to me ... If we can but understand our innermost workings, there is so much we can then do to control, perhaps, some of the worst excesses of human beings in terms of good and evil ... The danger in the West is that so much has overlaid the meaning of our existence that we have lost track of our point of being here ... We get swept along in a tide of so-called progress but lose touch with our own humanity.

Thus the Prince of Wales, in an interview with the Washington Post. How serious, one might say, and how admirable, and how surprising in one so young – and apparently so unconsoled by child-bride, son and heir, and the loyal affection of his subjects. The tone, however, seems familiar. Haven’t we heard this sort of stuff before? Surely this is the spoor of that old thrower-of-bones from South Africa, Colonel van der Post, the Afrikaner who was knighted in 1980 for mysterious services to Britain, and is now revealed as Godfather to Prince William. Laurens van der Post has been many things: journalist, farmer, soldier, prisoner, author, traveller, film-maker. It appears he has now become the sage behind the throne.

Sir Laurens was born in 1906, in the South African hinterland, of a Dutch father and Afrikaner mother. He has made a career, and a life, of straddling the two worlds, European and African. Today he is better known, or rather better respected, in Britain than in South Africa, where his own stock don’t seem to have much interest in him. He is prolific and sells extremely well; he writes always, in some form or other, about himself.

Yet Being Someone Other tells the story of several chapters in his pre-war life. But throughout his work – scarcely excluding the fiction – van der Post places himself at the centre and sees no point in being diffident about it. His readers do not seem to object even when incidents are repeated again and again from one volume to another. Occasionally the egotism becomes too much: Jung and the Story of Our Time, for instance, is a wrong-headed book for several reasons, not the least of which is the vanity that insists on explaining Jung almost exclusively in terms of van der Post’s brief relationship with him.

Nevertheless, the reader somehow responds to van der Post’s delight in investing his own career with drama and significance. His first big success, Venture to the Interior, is a good example. Behind the deliberate double-meaning of the title is the rather slight story of a journey to present-day Malawi, a journey which is only perilous or testing to a reader in a European armchair. He turns it into the stuff of High Victorian exploration. No doubt it was written as therapy after the nightmare years of war and captivity. Old Central African hands have been infuriated by Venture and by its fame, which has lasted thirty years: ‘All he did was climb Mlanje!’ But the story is craftily done. There is a lot of workaday detail to do with African travel (almost unbelievably, he takes 40 pages to describe the flight from Heathrow to Blantyre) and a subtle mixture of meditation with reminiscence. He immortalises Vance, the young forester drowned in a stupid accident on the mountain, and he gives us the first exploration of his own experiences in a Japanese camp (no one easily forgets the description of the execution, when the stomach of the prisoner ‘cracks like a drum’ under the bayonet while van der Post rallies his men by telling them tales of Africa).

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