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Laurens van der Post (1906-1996)


South African writer, journalist, conservationist, and strong opposer of apartheid. Van der Post's works are a fascinating mixture of adventure, philosophical speculation, and mytho-poetic interpretation of the African people and landscape. From the 1950s, van der Post was known for his advocacy of the Kalahari Desert and the culture of the Bushmen. Although van der Post in general developed his novels from his own experiences, his autobiographical books were not very conscientious with the facts and literal truth. "Fiction has its own truth," he once said, and went into inventing imaginary stories of his own life.

"For this dream of being awake suddenly was more urgent that the condition of actually being awake. He felt like an explorer who had at last walked into the true unknown and found that the treasure of discovery was the realisation that true awareness needs not only the fact, but also the dream of the fact: these are the two vital ends to the journey between." (from The Face Beside the Fire, 1953)

Lourens Jan van der Post was born in Philippolis. His father, Christiaan Willem Hendrik van der Post, a successful law agent and member of the Volksraad, was born in Holland. When he was three, his family moved to South Africa. In 1885 he married Johanna Lubbe, who could trace her family roots back to the early settlers in South Africa. After her death, Christiaan Willem Hendrik married her sister, Maria-Magdalena, 'Lammie.' Lourens (Louwtjie) was his father's 13th child.

Van der Post entered in 1918 Grey College in Bloemfontein. There it was a great shock to him that he was "being educated into something which destroyed the sense of common humanity I shared with the black people." After leaving school he went to Durban, where he worked as a reporter on the Natal Advertiser. With the poet Roy Campbell and William Plomer, whose novel about multi-racial marriage caused a storm in white South Africa, he edited the magazine Voorslag. In 1926 he traveled with Plomer to Japan, where he spent some weeks.

In 1928 van der Post went to England, staying there about fifteen months. In 1929 he married in Bridport Marjorie Wendt, the daughter of the founder and conductor of the Cape Town Orchestra. After returning to South Africa, van der Post became leader writer for the Cape Times. "For the time being Marjorie and I are living in the most dire poverty that exists," he confessed in his journal.

In Cape Town van der Post spent his time in the company of young Bohemians and intellectuals, who opposed General Hertzog and the 'white South African' policy. His article 'South Africa in the Melting Pot,' published in The Realist, crystallized his view of the racial situation in the country. "The white South African has never consciously believed," he wrote, "that the native should ever become his equal." But van der Post prophesied that "the process of levelling-up and inter-mixture must accelerate continually ... the future civilization of South Africa is, I believe, neither black or white but brown." In 1931 he sailed back to London.

During the 1930s van der Post traveled several times between Africa and Europe. His first novel, In a Province (1934), published by the Hogarth Press, attracted the attention of such critics as Compton Mackenzie and Herbert Read. The work was not a commercial success, and did not help van der Post in his financial needs. Possibly with the help of Lilian Bowes Lyon, he bought in 1934 a farm in Gloucestershire. Lilian was his neighbor and a novelist writing under the pseudonym D.J. Cotman. The daily routines of his farm took much of van der Post's writing time. He was also drinking heavily.

During the Second World War van der Post served as an Intelligence Officer with the British Army in the Middle and Far East. He participated in the Abyssinian campaign of 1940-41. Though van der Post knew nothing of camels, he led a camel caravan to the mountains, where he met the Emperor Haile Selassie. He was then sent to Java, where he was soon taken prisoner by the Japanese. Like his fellow-prisoners, he suffered from malnutrition and was beaten, but did not start to hate his guards. In Yet Being Someone Other (1982) van der Post tells how he was saved several times by his "inner voice" or "the other voice" in him, which actually took command of him. He had also one advantage – he could speak some Japanese. Once, depressed, he wrote in his diary: "it is one of the hardest things in this prison life: the strain caused by being continually in the power of people who are only half-sane and live in a twilight of reason and humanity." The Japanese let him run the camp 'farm,' but van der Post's idea of rearing pigs was a disaster. More successful was his vegetable garden. "There can be such a thing as prison bravery, and in this man we witnessed British fortitude at its best," said later one of the Australian prisoners.

Van der Post returned to his camp experiences in the novel A Bar of Shadow (1954) and The Seed and the Sower (1963), a collection of stories. Later the Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima based his film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1982) on the stories set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. In the central roles are two rock stars, David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composed the score. Bowie plays a British officer, whose personal integrity and individualism threatens the authority of the commandant of the camp. Van der Post's alter ego in the stories was John Lawrence. Oshima's own idea was to create homosexual tensions between the characters.

The war ended in August 1945, but when the other POWs left, van der Post remained behind for some years. He worked as a military attaché in Batavia, leaving Java at the end of May 1947. He visited briefly South Africa and after divorcing Marjorie, he married the writer Ingaret Giffard. They had met in 1936 on a German passenger liner called the Watussi. Ingaret was married, and van der Post also became a friend of her husband. Just before marrying her, he became engaged to Fleur Kohler-Baker, the daughter of a prominent farmer and businessman. They also met on a ship. She was seventeen and the engagement was private. Van der Post sent her love letters and poems, and it was a shock to Fleur, when van der Post decided to leave her. Some years later on a ship van der Post seduced a fourteen-year-old South African girl, who was traveling to London to start her ballet studies. Their affair continued for over a year, and in 1954 she gave birth to his child. In 1966 van der Post met in Zurich Frances Baruch, a thirty-year-old sculptor, who became his companion during the following decades. At that time van der Post was sixty but he continued to have other affairs. With Frances he traveled in India, South Africa, America and Europe.

In 1949 Van der Post met Carl Jung in Zurich. He lectured at the Zurich Institute two years later, and again in 1954. Jung does not mention van der Post in the autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), but in his own book, Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975), van der Post portrays the famous Swiss psychoanalyst as his close friend. "I remember how keen his attention became," van der Post wrote, "when I told him how difficult it had been to get the Bushmen concerned to tell me their stories. I was always at that moment amazed by Jung's capacity for listening when he himself was constantly almost bursting at the seams with things to say." Van der Post emphasized that he was never Jung's patient. During his captivity in Java, his psychic strength helped him, but he also had mythomaniac tendencies – not an exceptional trait in a writer. He was, as J.D.F. Jones writes in his biography of van der Post, Teller of Many Tales (2001), a "compulsive liar." According to van der Post, Jung once said that he had found "habitual liars and intellectuals" most difficult to heal. However, readers loved van der Post's suggestive and eloquent style. He had a unique talent of drawing his audience into the world he had created, and giving to his tales a deeper, yet often undefined meaning.

In the early 1950s, van der Post made several journeys to Central Africa. He worked also as a freelance journalist. In 1949 he was commissioned by the Colonial Development Corporation (CDC) to "assess the livestock capacities of the uninhabited Nyika and Mlanje plateaux of Nyasaland." During the journey one of the members, a young forester, drowned. His death became material for van der Post’s travel book, Venture to the Interior (1952), which took much of its structure from Joseph Conrad's famous work, Heart of Darkness. Another source of influence was possibly H. Rider Haggard, who was also one of Jung's favorite writers.

The Lost World of Kalahari (1958) and The Heart of The Hunter (1961) brought international attention to the Kalahari and the Bushmen. Van der Post's expedition to the Kalahari in 1955 produced a six-part BBC series, which made an immense impact all round the word. The series made van der Post a television personality. He was also considered an authority on Bushman folklore and culture. "I was compelled towards the Bushmen," he said, "like someone who walks in his sleep, obedient to a dream of finding in the dark what the day has denied him." When he traveled in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, he occasionally compared the Russians with Africans. Although van der Post did not hide his detestation of the Soviet system, his openness to other cultures is evident also in his account of the journey, first published in the magazine Holiday, and then in book form.

The Face Beside the Fire (1953), van der Post's second novel, was described as "pretentiously silly" in The Spectator. Flamingo Feather (1955) was an international bestseller. Alfred Hitchcock planned to film the story, which dealt with a Soviet conspiracy to destroy the whites with the help of a secret army. However, the authorities in South Africa were not very cooperative and Hitchcock abandoned the project. Perhaps for political reasons, Finnish publishers did not touch the anti-Communist book, but Venture to the Interior and The Face Beside the Fire were translated into Finnish. In the 1960s times had changed in Finland and the Soviet Embassy did not protest, when van der Post's Journey into Russia appeared in Finnish. Penguin books kept Flamingo Feather in print until the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

In van der Post's works, Africa emerged as a place where one could experience something of the oneness of being. In his youth as a journalist, van der Post had written of the everyday problems of South Africa, but from the 1950s on, his visionary, romantic view started to gain the upper hand with regard to the affairs of the continent. His thought of the "dark aspect" of the white man and "the unlived darker brother" within the black man, owed all to Carl Jung's idea of "the shadow" and his concepts of the animus and anima. Hemingway's masculine Africa was far from van der Post's "mother's country"  – feminine, unconscious, constantly in conflict with his European heritage, which was his "father's country," masculine and conscious. "If we could but make friends with our inner selves, come to terms with our own darkness, then there would be no trouble from without," he wrote in The Dark Eye in Africa. "But before we can close out split natures we must forgive ourselves. We must, we must forgive our European selves for what we have done to the African within us."

Van der Post was a friend of Alan Paton, the writer of Cry the Beloved Country (1948) and helped to fund his Liberal Party causes. From the 1960s he started to suspect that the South African Special Branch had something to do with the loss of letters to his sisters and to Paton. Van der Post's assumption was not groundless  – the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) had a file on him. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader, who was appointed Prime Minister in 1979, received from van der Post several long letters dealing with Africa. His closeness to the Prime Minister astonished the Foreign Office officials. Van der Post's friendship with Prince Charles gave rise to jokes  – he was called "the Prince's Guru." Before his death, van der Post witnessed the fall of the apartheid system. In the power struggle he supported the Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, not Nelson Mandela and the ANC. Laurens van der Post died in London on December 16, 1996. His ashes were buried in Philippolis in South Africa.

For further reading: Contemporary World Authors 5-6 (1963); Counterpoint, ed. by R. Newquist (1964); Laurens van der Post by Frederick I Capenter (1969); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); A Walk With A White Bushman: Laurens van der Post in conversation with Jean-Marc Pottiez (1986); The Rock Rabbit and the Rainbow - Laurens van der Post among Friends, ed. by Robert Hinshaw (1997); Teller of Many Tales: The Lives of Laurens van der Post by J.D.F. Jones (2001)

Selected works:

  • In a Province, 1934
  • Venture to the Interior, 1952
    - Uhkaretki tuntemattomaan (suom. Anna-Liisa ja Eero Ahmavaara, 1953)
  • The Face Beside the Fire, 1953
    - Kasvot nuotion loisteessa: romaani  (suom. Anna-Liisa ja Eero Ahmavaara, 1954)
  • A Bar of Shadow, 1954
  • Flamingo Feather, 1955
  • The Dark Eye in Africa, 1955
  • Race Prejudice as Self-Rejection, 1957
  • The Creative Pattern in Primitive Africa, 1957
  • The Lost World of the Kalahari, 1958
    - Maan pyhyyden vaalijat. Kalaharin sydämessä (an abridged edition, in Kesyttömät asuinseudut, suom. Auli Hurme-Keränen, 1998)
    - BBC TV mini-series / documentary in 1956 (5 parts, 117 minutes) , written and hosted by Laurens van der Post, filmed in Botswana 
  • The Heart of the Hunter, 1961 (with drawings by Maurice Wilson)
  • Patterns of Renewal, 1962
  • The Seed and the Sower, 1963
    - film: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1982), dir. by Nagisa Oshima, starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi, Jack Thompson
  • Intuition, Intellect, and the Racial Question, 1964
  • A Journey into Russia, 1964 (US title: A View of All the Russias, 1964)
    - Matka Venäjälle (suom. Matti Karjalainen, 1965)
  • A Portrait of All the Russias, 1967 (photographs by Burt Glinn)
    - Venäjän kasvot  (suom. Matti Karjalainen, 1967)
  • The Hunter and the Whale, 1967
  • A Portrait of Japan, 1968  (photographs by Burt Glinn)
  • African Cooking, 1970 (with the editors of Time-Life Books, photographed by Brian Seed and Richard Jeffery)
  • The Night of the New Moon, August 6, 1945... Hiroshima, 1970 (US title: The Prisoner and the Bomb, 1971)
  • The Man and the Shadow, 1971
  • A Story Like the Wind, 1972
  • A Far-Off Place, 1974
    - film 1993, based on the books A Far-Off Place and A Story Like the Wind, dir. by Mikael Salomon, screenplay by Robert Caswell, Jonathan Hensleigh and Sally Robinson, starring Reese Witherspoon, Ethan Randall (Embry), Maximilian Schell, Sarel Bok, Jack Thompson
  • A Mantis Carol, 1975
  • Jung and the Story of Our Time, 1975
  • First Catch Your Eland: A Taste of Africa, 1977
  • Yet Being Someone Other, 1982
  • Testament to the Bushman, 1984 (with Jane Taylor)
  • A Walk with the White Bushman, 1986 (Laurens van der Post in conversation with Jean-Marc Pottiez)
  • About Blady: A Pattern Out of Time, 1991
  • Feather fall: An Anthology, 1994 (edited by Jean-Marc Pottiez, assisted by Jane Bedford)
  • The Voice of the Thunder, 1994
  • The Admiral’s Baby, 1997  

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