YET BEING SOMEONE OTHER by Laurens van der Post


Email this review


Reading van der Post's memoir of a lifelong passion for the sea, ships, and exotic ports is like climbing a giant sand dune in ski boots: unremittingly tedious, despite the occasional splendid vistas. Not content to evoke the awesome, brooding seascapes of his native South Africa and to recall the adventurous, deeply satisfying years he spent (mostly between the Wars) in and around Durban, his voyage to Japan and back in 1926, etc., van der Post lingers obsessively over every least detail, savoring his story instead of telling it, so that it soon freezes into deadly stasis. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the chapter describing his encounter with a demon-ridden whaling captain, Thor Kaspersen. A fascinated/horrified guest aboard the Larsen II, van der Post watches this Ahab do his grisly work--but he spoils the whole episode with longwinded, pseudo-Conradian portentousness (""Ah, that hole. . . that darkness. . . that emptiness. I, Thor Kaspersen, I also know them well""). Van der Post has plenty of good tales: the time an enraged little Japanese officer almost sliced him to pieces for smoking near the tomb of the Emperor Meiji; the voluptuous Portuguese whore attacked by a crazed mob of hatpin-wielding matrons on the deck of the Gloucester Castle; his capture by a Japanese patrol in the jungles of Java, when a stream of half-forgotten hyper-polite Japanese phrases rushed to his lips and saved his life. But again and again he wraps them in a winding sheet of elaborate, sonorous, motionless prose. Worse yet while van der Post's heart is unfailingly in the right place (he resists Afrikaner racism, responds to Japanese culture with electric sensitivity, generously praises natural beauty and human decency wherever he finds them), he's too staid and humorless to make us catch fire from his feelings. Not unlike his other, post-Sixties writing: a high-minded failure.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1983
Publisher: Morrow