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