Romulus

THIS book came about in unusual circumstances. Raimond Gaita delivered the eulogy at his father's funeral in 1996, and two fellow writers urged him to publish it in the literary journal Quadrant. Out of this came the book, a spare and beautifully written memoir of his father and his own fraught relationship with him.

But if the circumstances of the book are unusual, the genre is not, especially in this country. Australians seem to have a passion for reading and writing autobiography, as if they feel the history of this young (in white terms) country has not yet been adequately documented; as if we all have stories that have not been told.

In recent years alone, we have seen brilliant memoirs by David Malouf, Robert Dessaix, Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska, for instance. Gaita's work is often compared to A.B. Facey's A Fortunate Life, also a runaway best-seller. But an even closer comparison is with Richard Freadman's Shadow of Doubt, which appeared not long after Romulus, My
Father. (Here I have to declare a conflict of interest. My company, Bystander Press, published the Freadman book but the comparison is instructive and worth making.)

Both books deal with flawed and vulnerable fathers who were nevertheless much loved by their sons. In both, the son attempts to come to terms with his relationship with his father after the father's death, and to analyse retrospectively the nature of the father's character. Both books are written with scrupulous objectivity and fairness.

Above all, both books postulate a peculiarly Australian kind of decency -- what used to be summed up in the colloquial term "fair go". Gaita speaks of "a distinctively Australian decency", but he is quick to acknowledge its downside -- for instance, the sometimes-condescending way in which Romulus is treated, or the limits of understanding and emotional
sympathy that lead most of the town to dismiss Raimond's mother.

He is far from starry-eyed about Australia and Australians but, as with anything else, he examines what is good and bad, flawed and admirable about society. It is this even-handedness which to me is one of the book's finest qualities.

The problem with a memoir like this is what makes us believe the writer's account. How, in D.H. Lawrence's words, do we trust the tale and not the teller if we have no way of verifying the teller's account other than through the story?

Gaita, in particular, seems to me to be fully aware of this problem, and his writing is scrupulously detached. It is noticeable how little he himself intrudes into the narrative. There are only brief, incidental mentions of what must have been momentous events in his life -- a divorce and re-marriage, appointment to a chair of philosophy in London, the birth of
two daughters.

When he does bring himself into the narrative -- as in his decision to go to Melbourne High School -- it is because it leads to a major confrontation with his father, and the only incidents he describes in any detail are those which affect our understanding of Romulus.

This is also, as one might expect from a philosopher, an extremely analytic book. Reviewers have commented on the lyrical qualities of the prose -- Gaita responds to the harsh beauty of the Australian landscape, for instance, in a way that his European father was never able to do -- but what struck me most about the book is the careful, calm precision with
which he studies his father and attempts to come to terms with his contradictions.

There is his father's stoic, unflappable patience in the face of disaster and yet the attempts at suicide and the mental breakdown. There is the tenderness with which he treats Raimond most of the time but the occasional frightening burst of anger towards his son. There is the absolutism of his sense of morality (his hatred of lying, even of the most harmlessly
social kind, for instance) and yet his tolerance of the selfish behaviour of his relatives -- until, in a beautifully human detail, he loses patience when one of them presents him with a bottle of slivovitz that is not completely full.

The sympathy and love that Raimond accords his father could not, in the nature of things, be replicated with his mother, but the book makes a determined attempt to understand her as well, and to recognise the failings of understanding committed by those closest to her.

In one of the most thoughtful and retrospectively analytic passages in the book, Gaita writes in chapter eight: "My father, Hora and, I think, Mitru, did not appreciate the degree to which my mother's life and behaviour were affected by her psychological illness ... But, looking back, I believe that her behaviour should have seemed stranger than it did to us and
to others." The only reparation they can make is to eventually and belatedly build a headstone for her.

The book is also very good at capturing the temper and texture of the times -- the way "new Australians" were treated in the 1950s and the slow changes in attitudes towards them as they gradually came to be accepted; the expectations and social treatment of women; and, the ignorance and cruelty of the treatment of the mentally disturbed.

Romulus, My Father is a very sombre book. Tragedy, suicide and mental illness are never far away, although there are moments of relief, and even comedy. I particularly enjoyed Gaita's accounts of the animals and birds that helped him stay sane in his worst hours. And the last few chapters constitute an almost happy ending, when Romulus finds love with
Milka after being betrayed by Lydia, his previous love.
Gaita tends to gloss over this long and fulfilling relationship slightly, no doubt because he saw a great deal less of his father first-hand than he did as an adolescent. Nevertheless, one could say at the end that if Romulus did not have exactly a fortunate life, at least he had a fulfilling one.

Romulus 8.3 of 10 on the basis of 3243 Review.