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J.D.F. Jones


The many lives of Laurens van der Post

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2001).

I still remember the deep impression made on me in the 1950s by my reading of Laurens van der Post's "Venture to the Interior". Although he had been writing for a long time previously, it was this book that first made him famous and it heralded a long period of public recognition. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century his benevolent and wise-seeming features were often to be seen on our television screens, newspapers, and book covers, and he became known as the guru of Prince Charles. Widely hailed as seer, prophet, and mystic, he appeared very much in the role of a Jungian archetype, that of the Wise Old Man; appropriately enough, one might think, for van der Post claimed to be an intimate of C.G.Jung, whose ideas he sought to interpret and make available to his many readers. And yet, according to Jones's account, van der Post might be more accurately regarded as embodying a very different Jungian archetype, that of the Trickster, for the persona he presented was to a considerable extent fraudulent.

Jones begins his biography rather unconventionally, not with Laurens's birth and boyhood but with his wartime exploits. He was captured by the Japanese in Java, and, according to his own account, written much later, he owed his immediate survival to his ability to speak Japanese. The Japanese were about to bayonet him, but he addressed them in formal Japanese, and this surprised them so much that he was able to engage them in conversation. His sudden production of Japanese, he implied, was not a mere cunning ruse to get him out of a tight corner but was due to the breaking in of something from outside his ordinary consciousness. The story is intensely dramatic, but unfortunately it does not seem to be true. Indeed, this applies to much of what van der Post said about his time in Java, a comment that extends even to his claimed rank at the time, Lieutenant-Colonel. But this is just one of innumerable instances of exaggerations and inventions about himself that Laurens was responsible for throughout his long life. Almost nothing that he said can, it appears, be taken at face value. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a compulsive liar. His claims to expert knowledge of Jung's ideas and of the Bushmen, to take just two of many examples, were based on little that was substantial.

How did this Afrikaner, with little formal education, turn himself into an international figure, a best-selling writer, adviser to a British Prime Minister, counsellor to the future King of England, recognized authority on the Bushmen, expert on Jung, patron of the environmental movement, and inspiration to many thousands of admirers around the world? The answer, at least in part, lies in his extraordinary charm and his ability to spellbind an audience, large or small. This ability was, indeed, another aspect of his mendacity: he was a story-teller of genius. Laurens wrote novels as well as supposedly factual books but the problem that faces the reader is that the distinction between fact and fiction in his writing cannot be taken for granted. Seemingly, Laurens himself did not see this as a problem. He claimed that the "truth of the imagination" was more important than boring old literal truth. Jones finds this unacceptable, but an important merit of his biography is that he has not sought simply to debunk Laurens. Biographies whose main purpose is to denigrate their subjects are not rare today, but this one is not of that kind. Jones tells us that he became increasingly concerned about the direction in which his research was leading him, and resolved to write the book in part because he was encouraged to do so by a close friend of Laurens, a Carmelite nun. The biography was authorised, after long debate, by Laurens's surviving family and friends.

It is not only in the matter of truthfulness that Laurens appears in an unfavourable light. His numerous sexual liasons were conducted with little apparent regard for the feelings of the women concerned; on more than one occasion, it seems, an unwanted pregnancy was the signal for Laurens to decamp hurriedly and disappear. The most startling episode of the kind, however, occurred when, at the age of 43, he seduced and made pregnant a 14-year-old South African girl who had been placed in his care. This event, which would have ruined Laurens if it had become known in his lifetime, was not revealed until after his death.

Jones's biography is comprehensive and likely to be the standard source for our knowledge of Laurens for the foreseeable future. Ample notes are provided for anyone who wants to verify Jones's sources. The book also scores well for readability, although I found my interest flagging somewhat in the later chapters, which deal with Laurens's largely misguided attempts to intervene in South African politics. Towards the end of his long life he seems to have become an increasingly hollow figure, as his grandiose vision of himself began to take over ever more completely.

The book is important, not just for our view of Laurens, but for the wider question of how far we can or should separate a writer's personality and integrity from the ideas that he or she advocates. Dr Johnson believed it was unnecessary to do so; we expect a signpost to point the way, he said, but not to run along the road beside us. This seems to be fair, but Laurens's case is rather different. He assiduously created an image of himself that was considerably at variance with the facts, and in so doing he acted out a lie. This cannot but bring his ideas seriously into question. Perhaps the real tragedy of Laurens is that some of his ideas, especially his concern for the environment, did have merit, but they are likely to be tarnished by the knowledge of his mendacity. The Tibetans are said to hold that one should catch the guru when he is being a guru and ignore his pronouncements at other times. This certainly seems to be appropriate for Laurens, but the difficulty, of course, is to know when he is being truthful. The revelation that not just Laurens's feet, but much of his body, was made of clay is in some ways a relief, because we no longer have to listen respectfully to his often sententious moralizing, but it would be a pity to disregard totally all the things he claimed to stand for.

%T Storyteller
%S The many lives of Laurens van der Post
%A Jones, J.D.F.
%I John Murray
%C London
%D 2001
%G ISBN 0-7195-5580-9
%P x + 505pp
%K biography
%O illustrated
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