British novelist/historian Jones (The Buchan Papers, 1997, etc.) exposes the falsehoods of a recently deceased and renowned world citizen.
Born to modest circumstances in white South Africa, Laurens van der Post (1906–96) achieved fame around the globe as, among other things, a prolific novelist, a spellbinding oral storyteller, an expert on African culture, a counselor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a spiritual advisor to Prince Charles, and a WWII hero. Fascinated, Jones won permission from van der Post's family to write a biography and, although never totally losing affection for his subject, became increasingly horrified the deeper he dug. Van der Post had concocted much of his war heroism, invented significant people and scenes from his childhood, based much of his supposedly true-to-life novels about the Kalahari Desert Bushmen on mythology, exaggerated his role in world diplomacy (especially in Rhodesia), lived a deceptive personal life while seeming pure of spirit, and kept his many admirers isolated from one another so they could not compare versions and uncover his lies. He was an enchanter, which accounts for much of his global popularity. Jones gives credit to van der Post for that ability to charm and for his compelling books, some containing important facts and legitimate spiritual insight. Ultimately, though, he condemns the writer for building his fame on lie after lie, some of which went unchallenged because the real and made-up events occurred in places rarely visited by Caucasians. The author includes helpful maps of those remote places, as well as genealogy charts that assist in sorting out the large numbers of family members mentioned throughout the text. Quite aptly, the epigraph is an extended quotation from The Aspern Papers about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of inventing a personal history. When the lies are eventually discovered, says one of Henry James’s characters, “They often lay bare the truth.”
A stunning example of authorized biographer as muckraker.