Van der Post's autobiography
Reviewers have no business leaping up and down exclaiming over the intelligent, moving book they are reading. It's unconvincing. It puts people off.
So I won't.
But even if I didn't need to guard against my overenthusiasm, Yet Being Someone Other, by Laurens van der Post, (New York: William Morrow & Co. $15.95) would still be hard to write about. It is not only unusually long (352 packed pages); it has so many facets that I would need three separate columns to do them all justice.
For instance, there are African and Asian land- and cityscapes pictured so vividly they should be hung on the wall and gazed at, often. Then there is van der Post telling about his own sad, beautiful homeland, South Africa, about ships and men on ships (it is the sea that links these autobiographical fragments together).
He introduces people - special people - but then one suspects that everyone van der Post meets becomes special. There is a quality in this writer that calls forth an echoing sensitivity.
And all through this book are snippets of odd information (only about 80 generations stand between you and Homer) and a taste of his own personal philosophy: - ''Being and doing, doing and being, for me were profoundly interdependent, particularly in a world where increasingly it seemed to me the 'doers' did not think and the thinkers did not 'do.' ''
- ''Perhaps one of the saddest things in life is the recurrent illusion of human beings that they can improve on the truth.''
- ''Never . . . let the best be an enemy of the good.''
- ''My asking [in prayer] I remember still, was just an urgent longing to know at least what I was intended to pray for in life. . . .''
Before I say any more, I want to try to preserve my credibility by saying what I don't like about this book:
Sometimes the author allows his splendid sense of words to get the better of him, ballooning his ideas out of reach; some of his philosophi cal moments need to be more securely pinned down. And, as in too many books and newspapers, there are, thanks to the computer, far too many typos.
Now, I would like to offer you a taste of van der Post, the masterly storyteller, by relating the story that lies at the heart of this book. But it refuses to be wrenched out of context.
The best I can do is to tell you that it began on a cold winter's day in 1926 , when van der Post, responding, as he says, to ''the prompting of instinct,'' came to the rescue of two Japanese visitors about to be ejected (on racial grounds) from a South African coffee shop. He invited them to join him at his table.
The friendship that began then, resulted in an invitation to sail to Japan aboard a Japanese ship. That voyage and the time he spent in Japan brought van der Post lifelong friendships, a knowledge of the language, and an admiration for the Japanese approach to life.
Then in 1945, when he became a prisoner of the Japanese and was subjected to what he calls ''minor torture, starvation, and beatings,'' his understanding of what motivated his captors (however deluded) was enough to conquer the hatred and bitterness that could have corrupted him.
''No matter how dark . . . was the face the Japanese - caught in a trap of history - turned to us, I never allowed myself to forget the illumination I had found and experienced in Japan and with Japanese.'' When the tide of war turned, he was able to work with his ex-captors and to save countless lives.
Van der Post calls this true story ''the parable of the two cups of coffee.'' He found in it justification for his conviction that ''no life however humble . . . was ever without universal importance if it truly followed its own natural gift, even if it was only to plow a straight furrow and plant potatoes well . . . . Whatever chance remained of survival [in prison] depended on . . . living a positive 'now' as if it were a safe and assured 'forever.' ''
Reviewing van der Post's triumphant 1970 book on how he managed to survive this imprisonment without bitterness, Monitor correspondent Geoffrey Godsell wrote that ''The Prisoner and the Bomb'' was ''a rare book, one which makes you want to start reading it all over again when you reach the last of its 157 pages.''
It becomes obvious what Mr. Godsell meant, when we read in this newest book how van der Post and a fellow prisoner were able to survive because they forgave their captors: ''In the process [of forgiveness], a kind of healing came to remove the hurt . . . of the day and to reinforce me for the next . . . . And more important than survival, we could not have come out of prison so much a something otherm than we had been before: an otherm totally bereft of bitterness. . . .''