It is unsettling--in the sense of who else am I missing--to come unawares upon an author only in his later years, who has led such a remarkably adventurous and romantic life, and written about it often. I had heard the name Laurens van der Post not as a writer but, like anybody else caught up in the royal marriage, as the only person of non-aristocratic birth chosen by Prince Charles and Diana to be a godfather for their son.
This book (though hardly its purpose) answers the obvious question of how a South African, born in 1906 to a prosperous family in the country's farmland interior, came to receive such personal recognition from the British ruling family. And it is a good indication of the repute he is held in Britain as a newsman, World War II military officer, diplomat, traveler, novelist and advocate of racial justice.
His is a life in which the humblest of youthful coincidences seem, as he says, to have been preordained to have an astonishing impact in his adult years. For example, as a cub reporter covering sailing news in Port Natal in the mid-1920s, he interceded one day in behalf of two nonwhites refused entrance to a Pretoria cafe where he had stopped for coffee, inviting them over the protests of the owner to join him.
The pair turned out to be Japanese businessmen seeking to increase trade between their country and South Africa. For a few days, van der Post served as their guide, and after they left thought nothing more of it. But a short time later, when a sparkling new Japanese merchant ship docked in Port Natal, the captain carrried an invitation to van der Post to visit Japan as a guest of the government.
Van der Post accepted and sailed away almost immediately with the young captain, who was to become a lifelong friend. The trip was a success, and van der Post became a student and ardent fan of Japanese culture. In those days, a trip by boat was measured in weeks, and he began to learn the Japanese language, an exercise, he says, that saved his life in World War II.
In 1942 in Java, he was walking unarmed in a jungle clearing near his headquarters when charging Japanese soldiers suddenly surrounded him, bayonets at the ready. Almost unconsciously, he heard his own voice speaking loudly and authoritatively in the most polite Japanese: "Would you please excuse me and be so good as to condescend and wait an honourable moment?" It worked, and instead of being slain, he was taken captive.
Among his other exploits, he led a wartime camel caravan loaded with arms from Sudan to an Ethiopian battlefront. At one crucial river crossing, the camels refused to budge until he spoke to them in an African tongue, Zulu, learned in his homeland. Because he also spoke English, Dutch and Japanese, he served as postwar mediator in strife-ridden Indonesia, where the Dutch sought to reestablish their colonial rule after the Japanese defeat.
Unfortunately, his book sometimes is tedious going. We get philosophical reflections at considerable length (interesting for a while, but ultimately too much) while we yearn for more details of the exciting life from which they spring. For someone who has not read his earlier works, he also irritatingly skips over important periods of his life, asserting that he has already written about them elsewhere.
There is, nevertheless, much to recommend in the book. As a travel writer, van der Post is marvelous, his prose elegant, vividly colorful and witty. The account he gives of his first journey through Japan is typical. Though fairly sophisticated, he committed his share of gaffes in the highly ritualistic society. Introduced to communal bathing, he dove into the hot tub to hide his nakedness rather than easing in gently. As a result, he all but scalded a half-dozen other bathers with the splash. At the entrance to an especially revered temple, he lit up a cigarette only to have it slashed in half in front of his nose by a sword-brandishing guard.
He regrets the end of the trans-oceanic passenger vessels, writing fondly of his frequent passages on the South Africa-to-London run. Then, the arrival of the regular mail boat from Britain was a matter of occasion, drawing large crowds to the dock. "There was not a lady of fashion," he writes, "who would not have as a matter of course a new 'mail-boat dress' and a special hat of incredible fantasy in her wardrobe."
The heart of the book is set in van der Post's youth, and that is where he is at his best. He comes across the pages as an engaging young man--intelligent, inquisitive, gutsy, athletic, self-deprecating, friendly. The search for meanings comes later, and by that time, as a reader, you are on his side and tolerant of his perhaps deserved self-indulgence. This is probably a book better suited to his longtime fans. As a new reader, though, you could very well be sent looking for some of the earlier works.