Book Review: After Romulus

By Paula Green

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After Romulus by Raimond Gaita
Text Publishing $40

Book cover of After Romulus. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of After Romulus. Photo / Supplied

In his previous book, Romulus, My Father, Raimond Gaita presented a moving account of his boyhood years. The skeletal details made you wonder how he survived, but the unfolding portrait of his father provided the key.

Romulus, his wife Christine and the young Raimond moved to Australia in the 1950s (he from the Romanian speaking part of the former Yugoslavia and she from Germany). Christine's life story included infidelity (not just fleeting), insanity, scant mothering, children placed in care, suicide. Romulus did not suffer such extremes but he was duped by another woman, descended into madness for a time and suffered several horrific motorbike accidents.

Gaita's second book, After Romulus, contains five essays returning to the same autobiographical subject matter. It is as though the first version did not satisfy his longing to comprehend not just his mother, father, and his father's best friend, Hora, but how these figures enabled him to survive.

Gaita the philosopher is at work here. He is again standing in the boots of the young boy in his drive to find perspective, but he is also reaching out into the world of ideas. You could say that he is searching for life in the ideas, and ideas in the life. The two cannot exist apart.

Not that these essays are penned in an academic tower, with barely visible threads grounding the words in a real world of grime, failure, needs and love. It is written in plain language as though he wants to avoid the pitfalls of excess sentimentality and secure instead some kind of truth (as a philosopher, Gaita is well aware of the tumultuous road "truth" has travelled over the past centuries).

Gaita has suggested he wrote the first memoir as a poem (think of this as the way plain sentences can become poetic in their grace and simplicity). Interestingly, I think the essays achieve a greater degree of poetry than the first book. This second one needs to be read at a slower pace and is all the more rewarding for that.

Some material is recycled from his memoir, but the writing continually transcends the original account. These men are guided by their humanity, decency, moral codes and goodness matters on a personal level and on a philosophical level. Talk was important as the men and the boy sat at the kitchen table. You get little gems. From Hora: "Our humanity is not something fixed or secure but always something we rise to."

The final, and perhaps most moving, essay highlights the mother. Gaita had been criticised about her depiction in the memoir, but he makes it clear why he had trouble writing about her. His writing does draw the mother closer (to him she is sensual, intelligent, unfathomable), but he lost her at a young age and could only ever know her from those boyhood boots. She is like Morse code, arriving in bits and pieces.

This extraordinary book set me reflecting upon my own residency in the world - my own decency, condescension, loves and truths.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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