Life lessons

Ro­man Krz­naric be­lieves we can make sense of the present and our place in it by look­ing to the past, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - In Profile -

OMAN Krz­naric has not had con­ven­tional life. In fact, the Syd­ney-born and raised his­to­rian’s ca­reer is a stand­ing re­proach to any­one who has let timid­ity or in­er­tia dic­tate his path and then re­gret­ted it. Krz­naric has resided, on and off, in sev­eral coun­tries. He has pro­fes­sion­ally pur­sued his most ar­cane in­ter­ests: Gu­atemalan his­tory, gar­den­ing, em­pa­thy. He has writ­ten a book about real ten­nis, the fore­run­ner to lawn ten­nis. He started rais­ing chil­dren at 40.

At the mo­ment, as well as bring­ing out a fas­ci­nat­ing new book called The Won­der­box: Cu­ri­ous His­to­ries of How to Live, he is a house­hus­band, by choice. ‘‘ My fa­ther worked for the same com­pany for 51 years, which gave him a cer­tain kind of em­bed­ded­ness and com­mu­nity,’’ he says by tele­phone from London, where he now lives.

‘‘ I don’t have that kind of se­cu­rity, nei­ther do any of my friends.’’

Hence the book. Its pur­pose is to use his­tory to in­form us about our lives — their con­text and their pos­si­bil­i­ties — and to help fill the spir­i­tual vac­uum that haunts the 21st cen­tury. ‘‘ In a sense,’’ Krz­naric says, ‘‘ you might say that we’re floun­der­ing be­cause of that lack of con­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion. And I think there’s some­thing else go­ing on, at least for me. In the 20th cen­tury we were ob­sessed by find­ing the an­swer to how to live by look­ing in­side our­selves, by con­tem­plat­ing our own navels, by look­ing at what drives me, what will make my life bet­ter, my life suc­cess­ful. It was an era of in­tro­spec­tion driven by the self­help in­dus­try and psy­cho­anal­y­sis.

‘‘ My view is that in the 21st cen­tury, we need to flip that over and, in­stead of in­tro­spec­tion, we should be think­ing about ‘ out­ro­spec­tion’ .’’ It’s a lovely word, and in­dica­tive per­haps of the in­ner ori­en­ta­tion of its in­ven­tor.

Krz­naric’s fa­ther was a Pol­ish refugee. Af­ter the mo­men­tous decision to leave wartorn Europe, he set­tled for good in Syd­ney. Krz­naric’s mother was half Ro­ma­nian, half Scot­tish; her mother was Jewish and had come to Australia via Shang­hai, a well-worn es­cape path from East­ern Europe.

Young Ro­man’s child­hood was split be­tween two worlds. His school life — North Strath­field and War­rawee pri­mary schools, Tur­ra­murra High — was con­ven­tion­ally Aus­tralian. But all of Europe vis­ited him at home. ‘‘ One mo­ment I’d be with my school mates, then I’d be back home and my Dad would be sit­ting there play­ing cards with one guy who’s Ukrainian, an­other who’s Rus­sian, and an­other guy who’s Czech, and they’re speak­ing four or five lan­guages, de­pend­ing on what they were talk­ing about. Whether it was filthy jokes or pol­i­tics, ev­ery sub­ject got a dif­fer­ent lan­guage.

‘‘ Grow­ing up like that gives one a broader view of life and of dif­fer­ent ways of liv­ing.’’

When he was 10, his mother died of breast can­cer. ‘‘ I have very few mem­o­ries of be­fore I was 10 years old, which you know of­ten hap­pens with kids with a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. I felt quite dis­tanced from peo­ple af­ter her death, sort of look­ing at ev­ery­one with a view from nowhere,’’ he says. ‘‘ Af­ter I’d been study­ing em­pa­thy for about 10 years, I had a mo­ment of in­sight — that my in­ter­est is partly a de­sire to re­cover that em­pathic self which I had lost as a child.’’

His fa­ther took on all his wife’s roles: for Krz­naric, it’s noth­ing un­usual to see a man feed­ing his kids or vac­u­um­ing the car­pets. But a step­mother soon ar­rived on the scene, an Ital­ian woman who taught high-school his­tory and whom Krz­naric quickly came to love. She in­tro­duced him to the world of the past. ‘‘ Ev­ery day when I came home from school, there would be a book on my bed, some­thing that was sur­pris­ing and in­ter­est- ing, and that’s partly where love of his­tory came from.’’

Nonethe­less, when he left home to study at Ox­ford, he took PPE: phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. He lived in Spain for a while in or­der to learn the lan­guage and there he met a Peru­vian man who got him in­ter­ested in Latin Amer­ica. He be­gan to read books on it, then en­rolled in a mas­ters de­gree in Latin Amer­i­can stud­ies.

Next, he says, came ‘‘ a very im­por­tant part of my life’’. While do­ing his mas­ters, he trav­elled to Gu­atemala and worked as a vol­un­teer hu­man rights ob­server in a Mayan refugee com­mu­nity in the jun­gle. The civil war in Gu­atemala killed 200,000 indige­nous Mayans and sol­diers would reg­u­larly come to the vil­lage search­ing for Marx­ist gueril­las, tak­ing lo­cals away.

His job en­tailed bear­ing wit­ness and re­port­ing back to the UN. It was, Krz­naric says coolly, ‘‘ mildly alarm­ing, but not dan­ger­ous’’. It im­pressed him in other ways. ‘‘ It was a star­tling cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence, and chal­lenged all sorts of things I thought were im­por­tant in life.’’

Af­ter­wards, he wrote a PHD the­sis on Gu­atemalan po­lit­i­cal his­tory, reach­ing back through 500 years of colo­nial his­tory.

He also stud­ied hor­ti­cul­ture and be­came a full-time gar­dener for a while, mostly to re­search a novel which he has writ­ten but not pub­lished. ‘‘ I’ve al­ways loved the way gar­den­ers can plant a tree and think, ‘ I’m never go­ing to see this tree grow but we need to plant these trees for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions’.’’

Krz­naric has set­tled down now — the phrase seems to alarm him — with his part­ner Kate Ra­worth, a pho­tog­ra­pher, and their twin three-year-old daugh­ters.

What time his tod­dlers al­low him is de­voted to his­tory.

Krz­naric’s think­ing has been deeply in­flu­enced by Ox­ford his­to­rian Theodore Zeldin, who writes books — with ti­tles such as The French and An In­ti­mate His­tory of Hu­man­ity — that ex­am­ine how his­tory is lived by real peo­ple. Krz­naric met Zeldin in a typ­i­cally proac­tive way. He was frus­trated in his day job lec­tur­ing in pol­i­tics and so­ci­ol­ogy and feel­ing he wasn’t do­ing much for the world, when he heard Zeldin speak on the ra­dio. Im­pressed, he tracked him down and made con­tact. He ended up run­ning Zeldin’s Ox­ford Muse Foun­da­tion, which en­cour­ages con­ver­sa­tion be­tween peo­ple who would never nor­mally meet.

‘‘ The con­clu­sion he had come to was that was how you change so­ci­ety, by chang­ing the way you and I un­der­stand each other, and


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