In 1972, when his reputation was close to its peak, Laurens van der Post published a novel called A Story like the Wind. Reviewing it in the TLS, I wrote that it was an old-fashioned colonial romance, but since the book carried a portentous preface in which Van der Post described himself as a great authority on Africa, I added that his statements about the Bushmen, the Zulu and other peoples were unreliable and tinged with racism, and that much of his material was drawn uncritically (without acknowledgment) from outdated sources. In those days TLS reviews were unsigned, but Van der Post wrote a furious letter complaining that his book had been given to an anonymous anthropologist to review. He was a novelist, he pointed out: his book should be treated as a novel. Did the editor propose to invite astronomers to review science fiction? Nevertheless, even in making this protest he had to insist on his expertise (‘I, Sir, grew up with Bushman survivors …’), because that was a large part of his appeal to his readers.
Van der Post was by then becoming something of an all-purpose guru, with a particular following among right-wingers. Later, most spectacularly, he achieved a personal ascendancy over both Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. He used to tell Thatcher stories of the Zulus, to which, J.D.F. Jones was told by a frustrated civil servant, ‘she would listen with delight, her jaw agape.’ (‘No evil thought ever entered his mind,’ she herself assured the biographer.) He accompanied Charles on a brief excursion to the fringes of the Kalahari and became the godfather of Prince William. These elevated contacts won him favourable, even awestruck publicity, though Private Eye regularly featured him uttering some New Age balderdash at which Prince Charles would murmur: ‘How true.’ Fortunately for him, no journalist discovered that as the royal marriage began to disintegrate, Van der Post had referred both Charles and Diana to a London friend who practised (unqualified) as a Jungian analyst.
The real puzzle about Van der Post is that his patently unreliable guff about Bushmen, Africa, Jung and the environment should have taken in so many people. His travel books are ludicrous. ‘Van der Post’s Africa is no specific part of Africa,’ Alan Barnard, a leading specialist on the Bushmen, wrote. ‘The Bushmen he describes are not any specific one of the many diverse Bushman groups. They are the Bushmen of his imagination.’ In the mid-1960s, I lived for nearly two years in villages in the area described in Lost World of the Kalahari. Although I was impractical and inexperienced, I managed to travel about alone without difficulty, following routes that according to Van der Post’s account could be attempted only by old Africa hands organised into heavily armed convoys. As for the novels, they are pastiche Rider Haggard. Typically, a grand coalition of good guys, made up of white hunters, faithful Zulu warriors and simple but lovable Bushmen, does battle with an evil network made up of urban blacks, Russians, and, oddly enough, on one occasion, representatives of the World Council of Churches.
Nevertheless, when Van der Post died, the immediate reaction was not to his work but to his life. Within days of his death in December 1996, just short of his 90th birthday, the Mail on Sunday reported under the headline ‘Charles’s Guru and a Secret Daughter’ that in 1952 Van der Post had seduced a 14-year-old girl who had been placed in his care by her parents, then abandoned her when she became pregnant. Perhaps thinking to limit the damage, the family granted unrestricted access to Jones, a well-disposed journalist from the Financial Times. There were, however, other skeletons in the cupboard: indeed, as soon as Jones opened it he was overwhelmed by tumbling bones. Even at the age of 78 Van der Post had seduced a young friend of Ingaret, his wife, in Cape Town. (‘One day, in the Mount Nelson Hotel, he was resting on the bed and asked her to lie down beside him to comfort him, as she used to do for Ingaret. Innocently, she did so. Before she realised what had happened, he had seduced her.’) Jones establishes that Van der Post was a womaniser of quite exceptional energy and staying power – and is rather prim about it: ‘Laurens, handsome and utterly charming, did not scruple to exploit the women around him. He may not have been the first to do that. However . . .’
He also complains that Van der Post was not much of a family man, but here the evidence is more equivocal. At the beginning of the war he sent his first wife back to South Africa with their two young children, but when he was demobbed in 1948 neglected to bring them back to England, or even to make sure they were looked after. On the other hand, relationships were rebuilt when his children moved to England as adults, and in his way he was loyal to his second wife, Ingaret, with whom he remained for nearly fifty years. He persuaded a publisher to put out her novel, and trusted her to edit his manuscripts, which she did skilfully. For the last decade of his life Ingaret was a victim of Alzheimer’s, but Laurens, already in his eighties, became furious when anyone suggested that she should be sent to a home, and he looked after her himself as best he could. He also stuck by his friends when they got into trouble. The Conservative MP Sir Ian Horobin had been in POW camps with Van der Post, and when Horobin was disgraced and imprisoned for a homosexual affair with a minor, Van der Post visited him in jail and later tried to find a publisher for his poetry.
Although the newspapers were particularly exercised by the love affairs – about which Jones goes on at some length himself – he is more concerned with what he regards as an altogether more serious charge. His subject turns out to have been an inveterate liar – ‘an astonishing liar’, according to a South African nurse who looked after him for the last four years of his life. ‘It seemed as automatic and necessary to him as breathing, from some flim-flam to do with socks to the engorged fabrication of his deeds. Consequently I found it impossible to see him as anything but his own invention.’ Jones acknowledges that, as he puts it, ‘novelists, whose gifts lie in their imagination, are particularly prone to re-create their own lives.’ Among recently exposed fantasists, he lists Patrick O’Brian, Bruce Chatwin, Laurie Lee and Jeffrey Archer, all writers for whom a legend as man of action was a large part of their stock in trade. The South African poet Roy Campbell, who was a world-class liar, influenced Van der Post at an impressionable age. (‘I have no moral objection to lies,’ the young Van der Post wrote in his diary, but, he added, ‘they must be well done and contain imaginative qualities. Roy’s were merely stupid.’) Yet, stripped of legendary encrustation, his life story is interesting enough in its own right. Moreover, despite his biographer’s obvious distaste, Van der Post does not emerge altogether badly from this book.
He developed a personal myth according to which he was tragically divided between Europe and Africa, the two poles represented by his father and his mother. This was a typically inflated self-image. The reality is that like many Afrikaner families in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, the Van der Post household was torn between loyalty to the Volk and a powerful attraction to metropolitan British culture. Born in 1906, the 11th of 13 children, Laurens never got on with his formidable and crotchety mother, who was a passionate Afrikaner nationalist. His father was more sympathetic, an educated, cosmopolitan man who published two successful novels in Afrikaans and built up a good practice as a small-town notary. He had become pro-British and even collaborated secretly with the British Army during the war. When her husband died, Laurens’s mother decided (quite wrongly) that money was short, and refused to send her son to Stellenbosch University. There, he might have encountered nationalist ideas. As it was, he took a job with an anti-Afrikaner newspaper in the very British city of Durban and decided to become an English writer. Christened Lourens, he began to call himself Laurens, a name that he liked to pretend recalled Huguenot descent, but in some of the stories his stand-in is named John Lawrence, which may have been intended to convey a kinship with Lawrence of Arabia.
In Durban he read Trollope to improve his English, and became friendly with two older writers, Roy Campbell and William Plomer, who had started Voorslag, a short-lived but now legendary literary magazine. Both Campbell and Plomer soon turned their backs on South Africa, and Van der Post followed them to London, where Plomer introduced him to the literary world and the Woolfs published his first, tentative novel. He enjoyed life on the fringes of Bloomsbury, and found English intellectuals very polite. (They would listen patiently to W.B. Yeats, he wrote to his wife, even while he was ‘comparing their national character unfavourably with that of cannibals, Hindus and Japanese, and God knows what’.) Nevertheless, he was drifting, and even contemplated an inglorious return to South Africa.
It was the war that made him. Van der Post began as an officer in the Abyssinian campaign of 1940-41, operating as a guerrilla, driving a camel train through the mountains and once drinking whisky with Haile Selassie in a remote mountain camp. After being invalided out of East Africa he was sent to Java, and following the surrender of Singapore was put in command of a small mission evacuating Allied stragglers. He did well enough in a rapidly deteriorating situation before being captured in (perhaps understandably) somewhat mysterious circumstances. There followed three grim years in Japanese POW camps. Van der Post ran education classes and secretly gathered and spread war news. Jones has dug up an array of both friendly and hostile witnesses, but it is certainly the case that British NCOs in the camp made a special plaque for him, and there is some striking testimony from an Australian prisoner, Dick Pabley, who told the authorities after his release: ‘The Japs picked us up and took us to a place called Soekaboemi and put us in some sort of jail. Here we met Colonel van der Post, you probably know of him. He was like Jesus Christ to us with his help and encouragement.’ Van der Post remained in touch with many fellow prisoners for the rest of his life, and Jones reproduces a moving photograph of former POWs gathered in 1996 to celebrate the launch of his memoir of their ordeal.
Van der Post, who spoke good Dutch and some Japanese, volunteered to remain behind in Java as a liaison officer after Japan surrendered. Indonesia was effectively under British military occupation and he became a key intermediary between moderate nationalists and the British Army, incidentally earning the hostility of the Dutch settlers who hoped to restore their Empire. He used his influence to limit reprisals against Japanese guards, and afterwards always insisted that it was necessary to forgive your enemies. At some stage during the war he may, or may not, have been promoted acting Lieutenant Colonel. After he emerged from his camp the question of his true rank caused some embarrassment. Someone must have intervened, since in 1948 his promotion was recognised and backdated to 1942. A few days later Van der Post officially left the Army – perhaps, his biographer hints, as part of a deal.
‘In the 1930s he had been insignificant,’ Jones remarks. ‘Now he had the confidence which came of achievement, senior rank, respect, a reputation as a hero and a leader of men.’ England was full of men who had distinguished themselves in the war yet found it difficult to make a new career in peacetime, but in 1949 Van der Post was commissioned by the Colonial Development Corporation to report on the potential of two remote districts in Nyasaland. He knew nothing about economics, agriculture or the environment, and nobody concerned with Central Africa paid the slightest attention to his report; but he drew on the experience to write a book, Venture to the Interior, which recast a rather tame expedition in the idiom of an Edwardian adventure story, spiced up with passages of mysticism. Against the odds it became a bestseller. Shortly afterwards he was sent to the Kalahari by the same Government agency, and submitted a report which said nothing about the Bushmen but argued that the whole of the western Kalahari should be made over into a series of cattle ranches. Once again, he turned the experience to account in a series of adventure stories and novels, most famously his Lost World of the Kalahari, which presented the Bushmen as a vanishing race of noble savages, holding out in Africa’s last wilderness, and talking (as Auberon Waugh remarked) ‘like drunken fortune-tellers at a church fête’.
If Van der Post is treated as a writer – and why else should we bother with him? – does it matter that he was a stranger to the truth? Jones takes the view that in Van der Post’s case the fantasies devalue the work, because he didn’t stick to fiction. Worse yet, he failed to distinguish between two kinds of book that Jones believes should never be confused:
In one sort of book (non-fiction) an author says, ‘This actually happened,’ and under a literary, even a social convention, we accept it and follow that journey, trusting it is true to fact . . . In another sort of book (fiction), we, as readers, inhabit a different part of our mind and relinquish ourselves to our, and the author’s imagination, realising that . . . nothing has to be factually true.
I suppose that I accepted some such distinction when I reviewed Van der Post’s novel in the light of his claim to be an expert on African peoples. Of late, the boundaries between literary genres have become blurred, and many contemporary readers might go along with his plea that ‘truth is always more than literal or statistical fact.’ However, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that fact can’t be distinguished from fiction.
What bothers Jones most, as he insists several times over, is that the reader of Van der Post doesn’t know what to believe. For example, one of his stories tells of a one-night stand between the narrator, John Lawrence, and a Dutch woman, as the Japanese overrun Java. ‘The unnerving part of this story,’ Jones remarks, ‘is that everything appears to be based on the facts of 1942 and Laurens’s own experience of them. Is it prurient to wonder whether the Dutch woman is, suddenly, an invention?’ He is particularly irritated by the discovery that Van der Post retailed Roy Campbell’s (no doubt largely fanciful) adventures on a whaler as his own, and later recycled them in a short story. Innocent readers might have supposed the story to be based on the author’s own experiences. ‘It is much more likely,’ Jones comments indignantly, ‘that Laurens reversed this process: he invented in the 1960s a fiction about whaling in the 1920s, and then, 15 years later, turned that fiction into autobiography’.
Jones has a further complaint, which is that Van der Post wasn’t even a disinterested liar. ‘From an early age Laurens slipped easily from literal truth to what he saw as imaginative truth. The important key is this: whenever he amended the literal truth . . . he invariably did it to promote himself.’ I can’t myself see that this is surprising. Why bother to tell lies that show you in a poor light? On the other hand, it seems very likely that Van der Post was persuaded by his own fantasies. ‘You are quite wrong about Laurens van der Post,’ his publisher, Leonard Woolf, wrote to a friend in 1957. ‘He is not bogus, he is one of the sincerest of men. Some of what he writes is very good and some of it, in my opinion, unmitigated nonsense. But he believes it just as Christ and Freud did theirs.’