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 life ... 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).

The journey in search of the Bushmen, The Lost World of the Kalahari, used similar tricks to romanticise a not particularly difficult expedition – it is remarkable how a long and boring row with a temperamental cameraman can be given such importance – and the journeys to Japan and Russia are, again, about the man as much as they are about the countries and the people. The novels are revealing in a different way. Flamingo Feather was a good adventure yarn, plugged into old-fashioned romantic Africa, where Communists lead a Black insurrection against sympathetically-drawn Whites. Many years later, van der Post returned to the dastardly Communists (this time they became Chinese) in a double-decker novel of boy-and-girl in the Kalahari, fleeing from their massacred homestead and led by wildly glamorised Bushman friends all across the desert to the ocean, where they are rescued by the Royal Navy! Then there are, for want of a better word, the meditations, again laced with autobiographical reminiscence. The Dark Eye in Africa, which he started to write before the war and published in the Fifties, is his classic statement of our hatred of the ‘native’, the dark twin, in ourselves. I suspect it is not much remembered now. The biography of Jung is the major work of his later years. At the end of an infuriating book he has the nerve – or the arrogance – to declare: ‘So much did I want this to be a record of my own experience of both the man and our own day that I have done practically no academic research in writing this account. I have consulted none of the numbers of my friends who knew and worked with Jung. I have read no books about him in this period and only turned to his own work as I remembered what was significant to me in it and wished to confirm it.’

So, we have been warned. Van der Post assures us that Yet Being Someone Other is not autobiography, but we know better, and it is good to find him filling in some of the gaps in stories we have heard before. There is still, however, a strong reticence about details that would come naturally to any other writer (for example, we have one sentence mentioning his first marriage, and one reference to ‘my work for Britain’ in the years since the war, ‘because I preferred to do it anonymously and unofficially’). At least it is splendid to know that he was declared ‘exceptional in every way’ when he passed out top from Camberley.

This time, instead of the diary of a journey, he has chosen the rather curious framework of his ‘special relationship with the sea’, which, even more curiously, he turns into a puff for the Union Castle line. This makes for some doldrums, but does not matter because once van der Post gets going he is bound to give us the mixture as before. He starts in early childhood, apparently relying on one of those extraordinary memories that stretch the reader’s belief. The tone is set at once. On his first sight of the Cape of Good Hope – when I calculate he must have been five or six – he notes: ‘Such sleep as I had was troubled perhaps by the first inkling that life was not made with the clear-cut simplicity for which one longed, but that the reality might be profoundly ambivalent and the manifest appearance only skin deep.’ The Cape is to van der Post, then and now, the image of hope and of storm; it is also the half-way house between West and East, not just geographically but also in the world of the spirit. Next there is the old grandfather, as remembered by Child Laurens at roughly the same age: ‘I remember how unusually loud and portentous was the sound of the bleating of his sheep in the kraals nearby, the lowing of the cattle similarly protected against the wild animals, the call of the night plover, the “commando” birds as we called them. Finally there was the mournful bark of some jackal setting out on its prowl for food through the night.’ Frankly, on second reading I don’t believe a word of it.

Happily, the boy soon grows up and goes off to Durban as a 17-year-old cub reporter. He makes friends – a tugboat captain with a liking for Wagner, and memorable Kaspersen with whom van der Post was to go out whaling for three seasons. He has used the South Atlantic whalers before, but here the description of the ocean hunters is splendidly done. As always, the detail is alarmingly well recalled (presumably he is using old diaries) and, of course, Kaspersen kills whales as a way to self-knowledge. He also dreams a wonderful dream of the meeting of an elephant and a singing whale ...

Then comes the accidental encounter with the Japanese in 1926, a relationship which, for van der Post, was to be renewed in frightful circumstances 15 years later and, for his friend William Plomer, was the opportunity to escape from South Africa. Plomer has written memorably, in his taut and discreet Autobiography, of their voyage to Japan, but van der Post’s version provides a full and fascinating new perspective. Van der Post was responsible for the initial encounter, thanks to a racial incident in Pretoria. As a result, he was invited to dine on Captain Katsue Mori’s ‘ship of legend’. A young quartermaster ‘led us across the deck and, although I did not know it, across a far frontier in my own mind’. (I’m not sure what that means.) These were the Durban days of Voorslag, a literary journal edited for a short time by Roy Campbell and William Plomer, which has today assumed a disproportionate role in the mythology of South African literature. The fact is that it survived only for a few months and van der Post’s connection was surely minor; he was scarcely 20 at the time and would go out to the Campbell house on Sundays. The three of them emerged to go on to other, and bigger, things, which for Plomer and van der Post started with Captain Mori’s invitation to Japan. Campbell was left behind as the other two sailed away from Africa: ‘the movement of the wind, I remember even now, seemed deeply involved with the rhythm of my own spirit.’

Be that as it may, Plomer was seasick, although he never admitted it in his own version of the voyage. Van der Post had to cope with jealousy: Plomer and Captain Mori got on famously and the Captain started to translate Turbott Wolfe, which had just caused a great stir (and survives as one of South Africa’s greater novels). But van der Post forgave them and now realises that he and Plomer ‘had been born totally different psychological types’. They paused in Kenya, where Captain Mori was snubbed by the British and bought lions’ whiskers – again, the episode is described rather differently by Plomer. Then they sailed, the three of them, through Conradian waters which tempt van der Post, then as now, to a riot of Posturing: ‘the voyage began with the lesson of learning how pursuit of my own craft and this experience of the sea, with a thrust of my own to the East, was also a search for my own truth.’ Plomer was still seasick. They weathered a great storm, which of course had its significance: ‘in the sense that all frontiers in reality are barriers, it still seems to me, as it did then, that being compelled to break through as we did was an assertion of universal design.’

Plomer and van der Post then toured Japan: a tour which provides a very rare example of van der Post being funny, all the more striking when you compare this new account with Plomer’s own. Best of all is the scene with the geishas, where the girl van der Post likes best is (hopelessly) intent on the terrified Plomer. The Captain and the two South African youths spend a celibate night, stretched out between the bewildered ladies (Plomer makes no reference to this), but of course the young and innocent van der Post has a typical last word: the geisha, he says, ‘was an externalisation of the unrecognised caring and feeling potential in even the most masculine of men’.

Plomer stayed in Japan: he was only once to return to Africa, and van der Post admits to having apprehensions about the wisdom of this cutting-off of roots. He himself returned to Durban and then briefly to Britain, back to South Africa, back to Britain, and into an unhappy period in the Thirties, dividing his life between Fleet Street and farming in the West Country. This is perfunctory, without apology. Then came the war: ‘What happened seemed predetermined ... I was no longer haphazard ... my random past had suddenly acquired a focus.’ Ethiopia. Java. Capture by the Japanese, of which he has written frequently, when he believes he saved his men by listening to ‘the other voice’ – this is very familiar van der Post territory. For two years after the war he stayed on in Java as Mountbatten’s man. He resigned his commission and chose to divide his life between Europe and Africa. He met Jung. Eventually he signed on for the final Union Castle voyage to the Cape, which provokes him to pull out his purplest, or rather his most vapid prose.

Whether van der Post delivers profound insights or a damp tissue is a matter of opinion, but it would be hard to deny that there has been a noteworthy deterioration in his prose. Venture to the Interior started memorably: ‘Africa is my mother’s country. I do not know exactly how long my mother’s family has lived in Africa; but I do know that Africa was about and within her from the beginning as it was for me. Her mother, my grandmother, was cradled, if not actually born, in an ox-wagon driving in the Thirties of the last century steadily deeper into the unknown interior of Southern Africa. The ox-wagon was part of the small and ill-fated Liebenberg Trek.’ Compare the Jung book’s opening sentence: ‘I have known, perhaps, an unusual number of those the world considers great.’ ‘Perhaps’ is van der Post’s favourite non-word – it litters his pages and has also crept into Prince Charles’s conversation (see above). Yet Being ... is so clumsily written that it can only have been dictated to a tape-recorder. This is clear from the rhythm of the sentences, which tail off into rent-a-word subsidiary clauses that add nothing to the meaning and yet come easily so long as the breath lasts. On his occasional television programmes van der Post can be seen and heard spinning the same thread of words, which all too often, these days, add up to guff.

There are examples here on every page. Of Conrad: ‘This dark gift of participation in all things and manifestations of life around them produced the act of transformative wonder for the light of an understanding which would find nothing in this rounded and turning earth ordinary or mean, and so made of their craft the instrument of the increase of awareness which I suspected was the abiding function of all art.’ Of Union Castle: ‘That last voyage compelled me to look, as I had not previously looked, into the paradox implicit in the fact that someone born so far in the interior of Africa as I was should have been so deeply concerned over the event, and prompted me to uncover in myself a sense of history and the sea which was in many ways not only a dominant factor in the evolution of my own life and spirit, but of some importance for understanding what happened, is happening and is about to happen in our time.’ Of a ship’s steward in a storm: ‘The teeth of gold and the dentistry involved in their insertion became an image of the worth of the norms of the human round, and reassurance that the rule of experience, scrupulously honoured as I had seen it observed all day, would assert itself over the abnormal in the storm and re-emerge no matter what the odds against it for the business of life as usual ... It was significant how often I was to think, at all sorts of odd moments without pre-deliberation, of the gold of his smile as if it were the metal to be transfigured out of lead in the alchemy of the storm.’

Do your hear the tape-recorder? Did you spot the Thought? Did you understand a word of it? This is flabby and embarrassing stuff compared with the clean prose of Heart of the Hunter and Venture, and it matters because van der Post is attacking areas where precision of meaning is important. There is an ominous moment in this new book when, after van der Post, Plomer and Captain Mori have had their unsuccessful night with the geishas, we are told: ‘I woke early, content at heart but in severe physical discomfort, if not pain. I had an acute headache and was unbearably thirsty.’ The more worldly among us call this a hangover. For us, a slight headache and a bearable thirst will accompany the reading of this book, so relentlessly composed of high sentiment in inflated prose. Incidentally, we are told that the geisha whom van der Post fancied in Moji later became a Buddhist nun. In his world she would, wouldn’t she?