‘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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rai­mond Gaita’s Ro­mu­lus, My Father,

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).

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