Laurens Van der Post Essay - Critical Essays

Van der Post, Laurens

Van der Post, Laurens 1906–

A South African writer of novels, travel journals, and other nonfiction, and formerly an explorer, a farmer, and a career officer in the British Army, van der Post now spends most of his time in England. Most of his work deals with life and its problems in South Africa. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Laurens van der Post's] three novels show the influence of Christian socialism, Jungianism, and a personal mysticism. Van der Post is an heir to the literary tradition bequeathed by E. M. Forster, but he also reflects the influence of William Plomer and Joseph Conrad. His first novel, In a Province (… 1934), dealt with two men, of different cultures and races, trying and failing to understand each other. (p. 212)

This theme of personal and spiritual isolation is found throughout van der Post's writing. All his heroes are unmade men searching for the vital relationship which will connect them to a sense of sharing in the ocean of experience. Van der Post ties this theme of isolation to the color issue in South Africa so that the psychological journey within the individual is completed through identification with one's black brother. In In a Province the hero comes to maturity through accepting his commitment to the native boy; in The Face Beside the Fire (… 1953) the hero accepts his role in life after a dream in which he identifies with the white-stubbled negroid face of an old man; in Flamingo Feather (… 1955) the hero continues his fight for racial harmony after identifying himself in guilt with African rioters. (pp. 212-13)

Van der Post's emphasis on the necessity and joy of love of white men for black men is the symbolic counterpart of miscegenation. Sexual love rarely occurs in his novels; the passion of friendship, of deep platonic affection, takes its place. He substitutes symbolic and emotional identity for sexual union. (p. 213)

Although van der Post has treated Communist agitation in his novels, he is more interested in the psychological lessons of the African scene than in its political and social complexes. In this sense he is a representative of the Conradian tradition, seeing Africa in terms of the deep center of a man's soul. Thus, Africa, more than a state of people, becomes a condition of man. Or as van der Post put it in The Dark Eye in Africa, a book in which he related his personal mythology to Mata Kelap, a Malayan phrase referring to a gentle person who erupts suddenly into violence, "Nevertheless, the interest of the world is compelled by events in Africa because, unconsciously, the world apprehends that Africa may hold the secret of its own lost and hidden being."… [If] van der Post fears violence, he also sees it as an unavoidable condition. In his novels riot and violence are the beginning, not the end, of racial harmony. The violence is the necessary catharsis, the expulsion of the festering wound. (p. 214)

In van der Post's novels friendship between men is never achieved till they have accepted their black or white brothers; no man is free of the chains of his immaturity till he has crushed and despoiled himself of all reserves of racial prejudice. The problem of color, as in all South African literature, dominates these novels; other issues remain secondary. (p. 217)

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English (copyright © 1967 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1967.

The philosophic travelogue is a distinguished enough genre, and it might be useful trying to approach Laurens van der Post's … novel, A Far-Off Place, in the light of it. Certainly, the action is mechanical to the point of absurdity, and serves mainly as a vehicle for disquisitions on the evils of modern civilisation, the life-enhancing wonders of primitive (especially Bushman) culture, and for ecstatically detailed sunsets, sunrises, lions, elephants, bees, and extraordinary facts about the wilderness of (it seems) South-West Africa. There is nothing cold about Mr van der Post, and nothing that is flippant or relaxed. Every bush, and every bird in it, burns with meaning and with moral intensity. When a boy makes himself creep slowly at night he does so 'despite the temptation to hasten that the sense of imminent danger brings to the human spirit'—and it is this portentous 'human spirit', and other spirits, that are the true protagonists of a book bent on restoring us to the world of natural magic from which Descartes expelled us (as the Romantic myth has been claiming for 200 years).

Much of this, considered contemplatively, is admirable, and the scheme of values—liberal-individualist yet quasimystical—has a traditional appeal to the English imagination. But even a meditative travelogue needs shape, variation, basic sensitivity of language, and some intellectual acuity—at least a recognition that truth is complex, and most values ambiguous. And no amount of well-observed natural history, African folklore or decent Christian kindliness will bear up moral banality, repetitiousness and an apparatus of coyly awkward or grandiloquent metaphors. The concluding Moralitas, spoken by a figure representing Haile Selassie, 'the only authentic royal voice of Africa', is that we must all (but especially African terrorists and Communist mercenaries) learn to love and to forgive.

No, as a meditation and vision of life, A Far-Off Place will not do, though its heart is in the right place—with the Noble Savage still. So that one is forced back on its merits as a novel, which is clearly how we are asked to take it. It comes as a sequel to A Story Like the Wind, and though it claims to stand by itself, it in fact begins very much where the other left off, and would make no sense without the … synopsis of the first volume which the author thoughtfully and laboriously provides. (p. 381)

Impossible episodes, ungainly prose, fossilised character-types, and wooden dialogue are straight out of the old world of Biggles and Bulldog Drummond. The terrorists (and anti-Nature forces) are led by a Chinese 'Chairman' who says 'velly funny'; a bad Scot with a worried conscience who says (like all Scots) 'Ach, dinna fash yourself, mon' (the World Council of Churches, or Kirks, is behind the invasion); and a cynical Frenchman who says 'mon cher' and gives Gallic shrugs.

It is all very preposterous and more than a little pretentious. A boy-scout's yarn has been inflated into a gauche, if well-meant, fable for our times, and into a would-be 'epic of Africa'; but the only true and fresh things in it are the springbok, the honey-badger, the bitter melon, and the wild fig-tree. (p. 382)

Kenneth Graham, "Back to Biggles," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Kenneth Graham), September 19, 1974, pp. 381-82.

A Far Off Place, the concluding sequel to A Story Like the Wind, is itself the tale of a journey, physical and allegorical, but it reaches no very convincing destination. On one level, as its author hints in his prologue, it tries to do for Africa what Kim did for India. It is a yarn, no other word for it, about a young European couple who find themselves orphaned and made homeless by a Communist-led nationalist rebellion somewhere in southwest Africa. Accompanied only by a Bushman couple and a dog, they make their way with appalling difficulty to the coast, where they are able to break the news of the conflict to a NATO fleet which is conveniently exercising its marines at the very point of their emergence, and are subsequently presented to the Emperor of Ethiopia, who talks to them in French and offers the apologies of Africa for their discomforts.

In many ways it is preposterous. Colonel van der Post's characterisation is embarrassingly jejune….

It is an old man's book. Exercising warships are no longer, alas, painted a tropical white. Naval officers no longer introduce themselves as "Michael Featherstone, Commander, Her Majesty's Royal Navy sir". Cockney seamen, if there are any, certainly do not observe "Cor strike me pink". I cannot believe that mercenary officers of revolutionary armies habitually address each other, even in irony, as "My guid gentleman of France" or "Mon cher Ecossais", and I have severe doubts about the high-born Portuguese lady who, tied to the Makoba Tree of Life, is obliged to sing a fado every night to satisfy an Old Prophecy of liberation.

Never mind, in this book the message is the medium. The story does not matter, the characters are mere instruments, and the true fascination of the work is the spectacle of Colonel van der Post trying to come to terms with a world apparently determined to block his every path of enlightenment. He is such a good man, so kind, so right, that the failure of this attempt, which is really a life-long dedication, provides a sombre conclusion to an exciting adventure—even perhaps, if it is not impertinent or premature to say so, to a noble life….

Colonel van der Post is constantly up against ideas which confuse his own convictions. He loves the innocent African, but he knows that given a machine-gun or a battery egg farm, the African becomes as awful as the rest of us. He feels a true brotherhood with wild creatures, yet he accepts the need to kill and eat them. He responds to the ancient unity of Africa, yet cannot stomach the methods of the African insurgents. He hates industrialisation, but warms to the splendour of a ship or the elegance of a good rifle. He loathes war but is a soldier born, distrusts power yet responds to it, searches always for an absolute which does not exist, except in the ideal.

He is a mystic, disguised as a novelist and man of action, and he is here in the world to ponder its incalculables, and allow us to share his conjectures. Yet he seems dissatisfied with the role, and wishes always to translate his long ecstasy into something more positive, some plan of action, some practical purpose. It is as though a sense of guilt, inherited perhaps from the Calvinist conscience, drives this inspired dreamer into a closer involvement with the world's reality: as though the dream, and the vision, is not reality enough.

It takes a very special kind of yarn to invoke these speculations in a reader. Kim itself, the yarn of yarns, hardly does as much. If I have laughed at A Far Off Place, and probed insolently into Colonel van der Post's privacies, I have done so only with respect and gratitude. I think I see some of the quandaries that lie behind his contradictory epic, and I certainly recognise the grandeur of its conception, and the love that lies between its every line. Laurens van der Post's absurdities are other men's achievements, and one of his doubts is worth a dozen of our poor certainties.

Jan Morris, "Mystic Gleam," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 21, 1974, p. 369.