‘There is love in this book’
Raimond Gaita’s memoir about his father and mother is a beautiful reminder that love is not a matter of degree, writes Anne Manne
Romulus, My Father is a book to wonder at. It began as Raimond Gaita’s elegy to his father, a funeral oration, later published in Quadrant magazine. Those who heard or read it were so moved they pleaded with him to write more. Gaita took temporary lodgings in Maldon in central Victoria and, across three weeks of feverish intensity, the story engraved on Gaita’s soul during his childhood poured out.
JM Coetzee called the resulting work, published in 1998, “one of those miraculous books that seems to come from outside and use the author as its cipher”.
That insight captures something of Gaita’s purity of tone and intention; the complete absence of self-pity, despite the pain and sorrow his childhood held; the generosity with which he backgrounds himself and bears truthful witness to the lives of the people he loved.
Set on volcanic plains that run on to ancient hills dotted with granite outcrops in Baringhup in central Victoria, the memoir is written with a luminous simplicity. It tells with a compassionate fatalism of the passionate but doomed marriage between Gaita’s father, Romulus, a Romanian migrant and blacksmith, and his German mother, Christine, beautiful, vivacious, fragile, who suffered from a mental illness that claimed her life by suicide when she was 29.
If Romulus, My Father is a tragedy, a story of madness and death, of sorrow and grief, it is also humorous, tender and full of gratitude. Alongside an elegiac sadness there is a joyousness, an aliveness to and love of the world. It has a glorious physicality: of the self-forgetfulness of childhood, of swimming in the brown waters of the Cairn Curran Reservoir, of breaking ice to bathe on frosty mornings at the rough shack called Frogmore, of heat shimmering over fields of tall yellow grasses under a blue sky that changed from harsh to soft according to the seasons, of great granite boulders atop the rounded hills smoothed by the passing of time.
It recounts the comfort and pleasure taken from fellow animals: Jack the cockatoo, who perches on the kitchen door and hops each morning into his father’s bedroom, pecking his lips as if to say, “I love you”; Orloff the dimwitted but faithful dog, who the little boy sleeps with for comfort when he is alone, wind howling through the creaking building; and Rusha the cow, who mercilessly charges Raimond at milking time but nonetheless provides the many cups of healthful milk the father insists the boy must drink each day.
At the centre, however, is the story of father and son. Gaita writes: The philosopher Plato said that those who love and seek wisdom are clinging in recollection to things they once saw. On many occasions in my life I have had the need to say, and thankfully have been able to say: I know what a good workman is; I know what an honest man is; I know what friendship is; I know because I remember these things in the person of my father.
There is an extraordinary tenderness in the portrait of love between father and son, revealed in telling details. Romulus, in Germany after the war, often walked 80km to get food for Christine and Raimond. Sometimes he fainted from exhaustion and hunger because he denied himself food so that Raimond could have more.
When they went on his motorbike to the cinema in Castlemaine or Maryborough, Romulus carefully stuffed newspapers down the huge coat swamping the boy, wrapping him up tight to keep warm. Raimond rode on the front of the bike, his father’s strong arms around him.
The memoir has sold more than 100,000 copies, gone into many translations, and in 2007 became a fine film produced by Richard Roxburgh, written by English poet Nick Drake and starring Eric Bana.
More than all this or the awards it has received, though, is the revelatory effect the book has had on its many readers. It has reached hearts far beyond conventional book-buying circles. When Gaita read an excerpt to a lunch for homeless people, one of the men held his head in his hands, then cried out, “There is God in this book!” After a moment, he explained: “I mean, there is love in this book.”
A country woman read the memoir and was so affected she bought many copies and put them like leaflets into letterboxes, eager to have others experience what was within its pages. At another reading, young sex workers, none of them aged more than 20, begged Gaita to repeat again and again the passages about his mother, not only seeing something of their own pain in her suffering but understanding that her troubled life was being written about with a compassion that they themselves longed for.
What makes Romulus, My Father remarkable is not so much the facts of the story but that we see it all through Gaita’s eyes, because it is told in his distinctive voice. While the prose is simple, entirely without artifice, it is deepened by Romulus Gaita, from the cover of the Text Classic edition, above; Raimond Gaita, left; Eric Bana and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film adaptation, top right the echoes it carries of Greek philosophy and myth, the way that in music a full rich chord holds greater resonances than the melody.
Gaita the philosopher, for whom a Platonic way of seeing is real and present in every sentence, is able to distil the qualities of a person, such that we see their essence. The character portraits — of his father; his father’s friend and a second father to Raimond, Hora; his mother; and her lover, Mitru — are as unforgettable as any in Australian literature.
Living in Frogmore, a small shack with only a few rooms, tilting sideways on its foundations, Romulus, poor, an outsider, condescended to by his Australian neighbours, had a moral centre of gravity that taught his son how to live. Along with Hora, Romulus lived as if the ethical realm were as real as any material object; he was indifferent to appearances and scornful of the superficial symbols of respectability, status and the possession of material things.
What did matter was non-material virtue; character, or karacter as they pronounced it; equality, friendship, truthfulness, a capacity for hard work; kindness to those in need; the conviction that it is better to suffer evil than to do it; and, above all, love.
It was in the way Romulus saw the world, and lived according to those values — ideals that were not preached but lived — that the fu- ture philosopher was schooled. The writer of the acclaimed A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice came to understand what mattered in life by how respectfully, utterly without condescension, his father spoke to and treated Vacek, a kind but eccentric wild man who lived between two boulders on a hill near Maldon, who heard voices and cooked eggs in his own urine.
Of his father’s friendship with Hora, Gaita observes that while being looked down upon as “New Australians” must have rankled, these men were not proud in any sense that implies arrogance, and certainly not in any sense that implies they wanted respect for reasons other than their serious attempt to live decently. I have never known anyone who lived so passionately, as did these two friends, the belief that nothing matters so much in life as to live it decently. Nor have I known anyone so resistant and contemptuous, throughout their lives, of the external signs of status and prestige. They recognised this in each other, and it formed the basis of their deep and lifelong friendship.
It was his father’s goodness, the light it cast over Gaita’s childhood, that transformed the bleak facts of his life into a transcendent way of seeing. It was his father’s generosity that enabled the boy to love his mother — afflicted by an illness so severe she could not care for him — “without bitterness, shame or resentment”. Christine is seen not through the lens of despair or resentment but with the eye of pity, as in this moving passage where young Raimond witnesses her return to Frogmore after a suicide attempt: The taxi that brought my mother from Maldon left her at the junction of the road and the track, probably at her request. I first saw her when she was two hundred metres or so from the house, alone, small, frail, walking with an uncertain gait and distracted air. In that vast landscape with only crude wire fences and a rough track to mark human impression on it she appeared forsaken. She looked to me as if she had returned from the dead, unsure about the value of the achievement.
Gaita’s juxtaposition of his frail mother, with her delicate European sensibility, against that setting — harsh and bleak, beautiful and haunting — shows the landscape’s ominous, looming presence, so powerful that it seems as if it is another character, impinging on and shaping all those living within it.
Gaita has written that we often see something truly only when illuminated in the light of someone’s love. His memoir exemplifies Simone Weil’s maxim that “respect is due to the human being as such and is not a matter of degree”. People invoke such ideals — yet how rarely do they live by them. How bruised, how humiliated people are by the cruelties of human hierarchy, of the valuing of one human being over another, by all the manifold ways a person can be diminished and humiliated.
Readers have responded deeply to the radical vision embedded in these pages with a spiritual hunger for a way of seeing the world that nourishes the soul. This is an edited extract of Anne Manne’s introduction of the Text Classics edition of
published next week (272pp, $12.95).