Essay by Kári Gíslason

In a key moment of reflection and pause, Romulus, My Father offers the reader a key to its interpretation. The author – philosopher Raimond Gaita – tells us that ‘Plato said that those who love and seek wisdom are clinging in recollection to things they once saw’. This reference to the Greek philosopher’s work Phaedrus occurs when the boy Raimond is about eight years old. He seems already to understand much about his father, in particular his father’s goodness, which he finds expressed in his workmanship, his honesty, and his commitment to friends. And yet, as Plato forewarns us, a search for the ultimate wisdom of such things must come later – several decades on, when Gaita is faced with the task of writing his father’s eulogy. It is then that a sense of his father’s character is joined to his own search for wisdom, a combination of biography and reflection that marks the memoir form at its best, and shapes the ultimate impact of Romulus, My Father.

Memoirs are by nature inductive, for most of the content is specific to the person writing. And yet the task of a memoir is more than mere individual recollection. One of the origin points of the form lies with a Christian tradition of recording a pilgrim’s journey, so that others may benefit from the knowledge that the pilgrim acquired along the way. Many memoirs aim to make sense of the past in a way that may be useful to others, and to offer their accounts in a way that is true not just to what the author remembers, but also how he or she remembers. As in life more generally, memoirists may be prompted to return to the past by an event in the present, and this prompting – a kind of task sheet for the memoir – will naturally influence how they remember and write.

The connection between what and how we remember is especially important in the case of Romulus, My Father, a relationship between form and content that we might look at more closely in three aspects of its composition history. The first is the book’s genesis as a eulogy, the second its expression of Gaita’s return, both physically and imaginatively, to the central Victorian countryside of his youth. The third, and perhaps most distinctive, is the narrator’s unusual position as a philosopher writing about his father in a way that reveals his father’s influence on his beliefs and ways of thinking.

As Gaita mentions in an acknowledgments section at the start of the book, Romulus, My Father first developed from his eulogy at his father’s funeral in 1996. He showed this speech to Robert Manne, a friend he’d known since their university days in Melbourne. Manne had become editor of the prominent magazine Quadrant, and in this capacity had commissioned articles from Gaita. Manne now encouraged his friend to expand the eulogy into an article, one that subsequently developed into a book-length memoir.

There are many moments when the book displays the character of its first form: it has a eulogy’s loving and familiar tone, its gentleness and at times quiet formality, but also the often frank way that eulogies evaluate a life and its contributions, complications, and humanity. Crucial to the performance of a eulogy is a conviction that understanding the life of an individual helps to illuminate common human experiences and feelings. Thus, the first step in understanding this work is to listen for the voice of a man who is farewelling his father, and in that sense the voice of a child who is articulating, for others, what he has lost.

Romulus Gaita was a Yugoslav-born blacksmith who, under trying circumstances, left his home for Germany, and there met and married Christine Dörr, a local woman from a middle-class background. In 1946 they had a child, Raimond, and in 1950 the family migrated on an assisted passage to Australia and settled in central Victoria. After first being housed separately, they eventually made a home together at ‘Frogmore’, a modest farmhouse six kilometres from Baringhup, a village of some ten houses, a school and church, and a hotel.

This experience of upheaval and change forms the opening context of the memoir, and portrays a first encounter with Australia that was shared by thousands of post-war migrants. Having the chance to leave a difficult life in Europe did not altogether make up for the remote and at times desolate one they found waiting for them in rural Australia. Like Romulus, many viewed the landscape as hostile; over the next forty years he ‘could not become reconciled to it’. Nor could he ever quite discover in Australia the feeling of an intensely involved community life that he had experienced as a boy and young man living in Europe, defined in the main through conversation with friends and neighbours.

Raimond, though, loves their new home, and in the early chapters of the book we get to know the author in his own right through his affection for the central Victorian landscape, for neighbours, and for the many animals inhabiting the bush and even the farmhouse itself. Raimond finds a community in a place where his parents find neither happiness together nor a sense of belonging. As the story progresses, his openness becomes a touching counterpoint to his mother Christine’s depression and the distances that come with it. She finds life at the farmhouse terribly alienating: ‘A dead red gum stood only a hundred metres from the house and became for my mother a symbol of her desolation.’

Romulus, My Father is not principally a migration story, but the family’s move to Australia and the reaction to the landscape are important for both the events that follow and Gaita’s subsequent memories of them. As a student, Gaita went to the University of Leeds, where he undertook his doctorate in philosophy. He then worked in England for many years. As he explains in After Romulus (2011), a book of essays about the memoir, during those years in England he became accustomed to the more ‘humanised landscapes’ of Europe, and indeed came close to understand how his mother had once seen Australia. Writing Romulus, My Father, he says, allowed his return to a childhood love of the country. The first draft was completed very quickly, in three weeks in a house close to where he lived as a boy. He had discovered again the ‘delicate beauty’ of central Victoria, and the ways in which his father and those close to him were illuminated by it: ‘I hoped that the events and the characters of the story I told would be bathed in the light and colours of that landscape.’

The result is that Gaita’s memory of the landscape forms part of the memoir’s structure and themes, and helps to shape the often troubling connections that are formed between beauty, madness, and suffering. Gaita has referred to Romulus, My Father as a ‘tragic poem’. Here, he is referring to the classical Greek idea of tragedy: that is, a portrayal of how good people are seen to suffer at the hands of fate or unmovable circumstance. Another aspect of the tragic mode lies with its objective point of view – its seemingly unaffected way of relating events. As Helen Garner has described it, Gaita’s narrative voice is ‘wonderfully serious, and terrified of being sentimental’. Like a tragic poem, the voice seems to accept that the human condition is, as Gaita puts it, ‘defined by our vulnerability to misfortune’.

Gaita’s term for this outlook is ‘compassionate fatalism’, an ethical perspective that he attributes to his father and that he subsequently absorbs as his own, both as a son and as a moral philosopher. As J.M. Coetzee puts it in his comments about the book, Romulus ‘comes to serve as a lifelong moral compass to his son and, via his son, to us as readers’. Thus, while Gaita tries as much as possible to leave himself out of the story, the ethical perspective that he shares with his father remains as a guiding hand as to how he remembers the past. In fact, Gaita the philosopher looks for and remembers his father in something very like the way that his father was able to accept the people in his life.

Crucially, Romulus’s behaviour and attitude towards others express his love for them rather than how they behave at a given moment. For instance, it is his ability to love while suffering that also enables him to endure injuries without becoming bitter. We sometimes see Romulus very angry. At one point in the story he is so jealous and bewildered that he is almost driven to violence. But Romulus is not judgemental or moralistic. While, as Coetzee writes, he and his friend Hora seem in some ways like ‘virtuous pagans’, they are not, unlike the heroes in pagan literature, overly concerned with their rights or sense of personal honour. This means that Romulus can continue to help those who have hurt him: Christine after she has left him for Mitru, and Lydia after her betrayal.

By the time he returned to central Victoria to write Romulus, My Father, Gaita was established as a scholar, philosopher, and public figure. As an academic, he has published extensively in the field of moral philosophy, while also often writing for a broader audience. The great success of Romulus, My Father added a very personal element to his public life. He has also contributed influential works on topics as diverse as torture, multiculturalism, collective responsibility, and higher education. When he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Antwerp, it was with the recognition of his ‘exceptional contribution to contemporary moral philosophy and for his singular contribution to the role of the intellectual in today’s academic world’.

Thus, while Romulus, My Father is not in any sense a theoretical book of moral philosophy, it does state its aims and points of analysis more openly than many memoirs. Today, family memoirs such as this one are typically approached as works of creative non-fiction: that is, as being literary as much as documentary in nature. But viewing Romulus, My Father in this way wouldn’t be quite right, for clearly the aim is to give the reader Romulus the man, not Romulus the character. Thus, while the book does stand apart from Gaita’s philosophical writing, Romulus, My Father is engaged in questions about goodness, love, and ethics as perhaps only someone like Gaita could pose them.

This book shows us what the memoir form is capable of, but also stands apart from other memoirs dealing with similar histories. As well as being unsentimental, Romulus, My Father is distinctive for the author’s insistence on writing only what he remembers. Consequently, the book has relatively little dialogue and relies less on scene-building than other works. A film version of the book, released in 2007, did not take the same approach – there is no voice-over or other framing device to show how Gaita returns to the memories of his youth. In fact, comparing the book and film highlights just how much the book relies on Gaita’s voice. A remarkable feature of Romulus, My Father is that, although it avoids many literary devices and often pauses in order to analyse events at some length, it still remains entirely gripping as a story.

Ultimately, it does this by adopting a voice that is true to the relationship that existed between Gaita and his father – true to their bond and to how it is remembered. Romulus, My Father is a study of goodness, of the hardships of life, but most crucially a witness to how a father and son can come together again at the moment they are parted – through the light on the landscape, through their love for those around them, and through their presence in one another’s stories.

© Copyright Kári Gíslason 2015