Tall storyteller brought down to size

Times Higher Education
Anthropology review: Storyteller

Sir Laurens van der Post was many things. Right up to his death at the age of 90 he continued to exert influence in his various roles as a writer of fiction and of autobiography, as a passionate environmentalist and a war hero, as a wilderness explorer and a modern-day mystic, as a proponent of Jung’s thinking and a champion of the “Bushmen”, and as a confidant and adviser to, among others, Lady Thatcher and Prince Charles. But most of all, argues J. D. F. Jones in this first biography of van der Post, he was a teller of stories about himself.

That the lines should become blurred between what is the truth as laid out in van der Post’s autobiographical writing and what is fiction in his novels is no real surprise. That those same lines should have been blurred even in van der Post’s own mind may cause little more than eyebrows to be raised. But slowly, methodically and pedantically over 476 pages, Jones lays out his case that the blurring was deliberately misleading and “always designed to enhance (van der Post’s) own distinction”. He was an egotist. In true journalistic style Jones has sniffed out his lead and doggedly clings to it.

Jones traces van der Post’s evolution from inauspicious beginnings as the 11th of 13 children born to an Afrikaner farming family in the Orange Free State to the international figure, which he had positioned himself as by his death. Throughout the biography, Jones focuses on the negative – in Jungian terms the shadow rather than the light – the rationale being that it is these areas that have been hidden and obscured in van der Post’s lifetime. There are his many infidelities, including the seduction of a 14-year-old girl resulting in the birth of a child that he never acknowledged; the assertion that he was a lieutenant-colonel in the British army when in fact he was only a captain; the rewritings of his family history and the gradual emergence of a nanny, Klara, from whom van der Post claimed to have learned of the “Bushmen” people and their stories; and the rewriting throughout his life of his own history, with small readjustments and subtle shifts in time and focus to place himself at the centre of events promoting his own role in episodes like the peace settlement in Zimbabwe, or the depth of his friendship with the philosopher Jung.

But the important question that Jones’s biography raises is how much van der Post’s fictionalising of his life actually matters. By all accounts he was a great and compelling storyteller, no more so than when he would talk, charming audiences with his apparent wisdom and knowledge. Jones has a tendency to pay little more than lip service to these skills. He makes little attempt to explain how van der Post was able to command such authority over millions during his life. Jones writes of his subject’s charm and ambition as weapons that he would deploy, and of his boundless energy that saw him travel the world even as a frail octogenarian. But there is a tendency to skirt over the positive.

Van der Post had admirable aims but an often wrong-headed approach, always with an eye on his own position. He may not have been a lieutenant-colonel as he languished in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, but he was a figure of strength and hope to his fellow prisoners.

His pet project was the San of the Kalahari, or Bushmen to employ the pejorative term that van der Post consistently used. He was instrumental in perpetuating the damaging myth of the noble savage – the primitive Bushman in harmony with nature. His attitude was one of paternalism at best and racism at worst. Nevertheless, in his lectures and writing van der Post brought Bushmen into the consciousness of millions of people in a way that anthropologists can only dream of.

At times the sense of his own importance, his belief in the stories he told about himself, meant that van der Post became almost dangerous. One can only read with horror of his attempts to encourage the federalisation of South Africa and self-rule for KwaZulu-Natal through Chief Buthelezi, and of his dislike for Nelson Mandela.

Jones’s meticulous research is admirable and the van der Post that he creates is more believable, real and, yes, sympathetic than the one van der Post himself sought to leave us with. The biography is both necessary and revealing as it redresses the balance that during its subject’s lifetime was tipped almost entirely in his favour.