JDF Jones, Storyteller - The Many Lives of Laurens van der Post, John Murray, London, 2001
I bought this book many years ago, on one of those Exclusive Books sales, where there are piles and piles of mouth-wateringly inexpensive books lying on tables outside the shop. And you simply can’t resist. It is hardcover, with one of those dust sleeves on it and it cost nothing! Who, I ask with tears in my baby blue eyes, can resist that?
I knew virtually nothing about the man. Naturally, I had heard his name. Naturally I had, at some point in my life, fingered a copy of something he had written – though (I admit) I never actually read anything of his, at any point. But he was part of the background tapestry to my life. Perhaps, when I was a student, having an unread Laurens van der Post on one’s bookshelf meant that one could be considered somewhat avant garde? Maybe I can remember my mother getting a sympathetic smile of ownership at the mention of his name, because of his links with the British Royal Family? Was his, perhaps, just one of those names, like Joe Slovo, that every white South African knows? Who knows? But I bought the biography and it sat on my shelf for year after year.
I started reading it, largely because I felt some kind of responsibility to do so. You can’t have large, dust-covered hardcovers on your shelf forever. There is some kind of law of the universe which decrees that immoral behaviour – or at least deeply irresponsible. So, after looking at it, as I say, for many years, I finally started reading it.
And what an extraordinary pleasure it has been! JDF Jones is a journalist and journalists often make really good writers. To be sure, I am not used to journalists being such painstaking researchers. But this one is and it simply adds to the great pleasure of reading this book. Because it is meticulously researched – not to the extent that you get lost in footnotes – but to the extent that he makes no statement that cannot be backed up by some form of evidence. And that kind of rigour is very necessary, not just in life, but in relation to this subject matter in particular. Because the subject matter is such a strange contradiction.
Laurens van der Post grew up in a tiny village of what was then the Orange Free State. His nanny for a time, was a woman of Khoi descent. His family was typical in many ways – with some eccentrics and a couple of heroes thrown in. But, from an early age, he seemed to have seen his future outside South Africa. It was the war, eventually, which would be both the making of him and the springboard to a different life.
From the very start, however, it becomes clear that Laurens van der Post is a complicated and beguiling character. But more specifically, he is a liar. He lies about virtually everything, whether he needs to or not. This psychopathic condition is given the edge by an almost pyrotechnic ability to spin a story. He was so good at it and the combination of fabrication and storytelling so bewitching, that he could write his own history, remake his own story and convince everyone of its truth and serious meaning. So the Khoi maid starts to become the central pattern of his knowledge of and relationship to “Bushmen” in their primordial human purity. His ventures in captivity in Singapore become templates for human behaviour in general. A walk down a road becomes a venture into territory hitherto unexplored by humankind. The ordinary becomes the super extraordinary. The mundane becomes charged with meaning and power. Nothing he does is ordinary. Everything is material for another grandiose and wondrous tale.
I have known a person like this and loved them very much, despite the tissue of lies that was part of everyday existence. I know the magical world they invent and somehow manage to negotiate. To be in their presence is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, of magic and wonder. But to live with them, you have to suspend disbelief. You cannot enquire too closely. It is imperative that you lend them your trust, knowing, as you inevitably will, that it will be broken. And still the ride continues.
Laurens was all sorts of things - some of them even approaching noble. But many and much of them were a sham, a sleight of hand, a mirage. Even though he was not very highly educated, nevertheless, he held academic court on a range of subjects, in a number of countries and in a number of extraordinarily wide contexts. Even though he had extremely limited experience of “Bushmen”, nevertheless, he set himself up as a worldwide expert – and was accepted as such. His stories about them, borrowed and reworked from books. Even though he had virtually no idea of the politics of Rhodesia at the time of settlement – nevertheless, he credits himself as virtually solely responsible for the transition.
He became an advisor and confidant of Mrs Thatcher. He was father-figure to Prince Charles, as a young man. He befriended Chief Buthelezi at the time of South Africa’s grasping for a solution to its terrible problems. He gave them all the most weird, ill-informed and perplexing advice – based largely, not on any facts, but on his own imagination.
Why was he listened to? How did a bald faced liar become so highly regarded and so highly connected? This is indeed a great mystery. Some of it had to do with his charm and wonderful personality. Some of it had to do with his created and uncontested history. Some of it had to so with flaws in the very people he managed to influence. But it happened! That is what makes the reading of this biography so extraordinary and compelling.
If you have known such a person, believe me, you will not be able to put this book down. If you have not known such a person, this book will forewarn and forearm you. Because they are usually the most seductive and wonderful people. Ruthless? Yes. Calculating? Yes, indeed. But wonderful and astonishing nonetheless.
Laurens discouraged any biography during his lifetime, saying that he had written it all himself in his books. But the real reasons become obvious with the reading of every page. His status as some kind of secular saint starts to pale as one hears of his illegitimate daughter whose mother he had seduced when she was only 14 years old. His claim to brokering the Lancaster House Agreement, does not bear scrutiny. His intimacy with CJ Jung was somewhat slight – despite his grand claims to the contrary. It was all, or if not all, then mostly, a mirage.
But the book also looks at his ability to inspire love, not only from those in close association with him, but from a wide range of people the world over. And it is this, which is perhaps, his redeeming feature.