Legacy of a Life Lived Well

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Colleen Keene, The Age (Mon 18 Jun 2007)
        The simple truth of a parent's love         and becomes integrated in ways that his wife,
informs the work of his son, writes Colleen         for complex reasons, is never really able to.
Keene.                                                      The book is also a social and historical
        RAIMOND Gaita's father was a                document because of the period it covers and
character, not a mere "personality", and the        the nature of rural Australia in the 1950s and
autobiographical text Romulus, My Father is a       '60s. The building of Cairn Curran Reservoir
stirring homage to this larger-than-life            provided typical post-war immigrant
embodiment of passion, pain, integrity and          employment and the rural work roles and
living fully.                                       relationships embody the times. Romulus is
        The experiences of Romulus Gaita            above all else a worker and a deep respect for
cover a wide territory, ranging across war,         work values and of skilled trades and crafts is
migration, work, love, friendship, mental illness   at the centre of his character and sense of
and many forms of achievement and loss. His         meaning.
values and principles deeply informed his son's             As a blacksmith and iron-worker he has
philosophical and moral inquiries.                  skills that are recognised slowly by a culture
        That ethics and moral philosophy should     resistant to New Australians despite Romulus'
become Raimond Gaita's specialisation and           ingenuity, energy and openness. His capacity
that he should use his powers of reflection,        to adapt and build a life at Frogmore, near
reasoning skills and humanistic insights in the     Maldon in Central Victoria, is inspirational.
service of both academic learning and public                We quickly learn through his son's
debate seems perfectly consistent with the life     misdemeanors (the aftershave and razor
that is uncovered and evoked so wonderfully in      incidents) that honesty is also a central value
this celebrated book.                               for this serious-minded and big-hearted man
        It is an unconventional biography and       for whom truth, tolerance and compassion
example of life writing. The narrative belongs to   outstrip any weight given to status,
Romulus but the author is harvesting and            materialism, superficial values and forms of
recalling from mid-life the circumstances and       acceptance and getting ahead. The
experiences of his father and hence also his        relationship between work and character is at
own experiences, setting his early life in the      the heart of his ethics of decency.
vivid context of his father's framework.                    But instability and mental illness shadow
The subjective nature of first-hand experience      the lives of Romulus and his son, beginning
gives this book its great energy, warmth and        with the restlessness and depression of wife
power. The impact of his father's way of being      and mother, Christine, who is young,
in the world is a profoundly influential legacy     unhealthy, has a German background and
for the son turned author and a powerful            different expectations and needs.
experience for the reader.                                  Her inability to function well as a home-
        With great immediacy, Gaita takes us        maker, faithful wife and mother of an infant are
straight into the moments of deprivation,           depicted mostly through the frustrated eyes of
struggle and confrontation that shape the life      Romulus and those around her, as the
that Romulus carves out for himself in              situations fluctuate and deteriorate with
Australia, after fleeing Yugoslavia and             separations and financial debacles.
Germany during the war. He and his family                   The author does not condemn his
encounter forms of exclusion and insularity but     mother for her neglect but focuses more on the
he readily adopts and embraces his new home         practical issues and impact on ordinary
                                                    survival. Everything comes under pressure as
the father struggles to hold things together and                      elements of life, including the significant and
sustain a simple life of work and support for his                     comforting place of animals. Jack the Cockatoo
son and others who need his assistance, which                         is a unique character, as are Orloff the dog and
he gives with unflinching generosity.                                 the family's cow. The compassion Romulus
        The relationship that develops between                        shows towards life is sustained to the end;
Mitru and Christine and the psychological                             dying in hospital in Melbourne, he prefers his
deterioration for them forms the tragic core of                       second wife, Milka, to be back in Maryborough
this migrant story and also points to the                             looking after the goats, chickens and other
complex pressures of migration and challenges                         sundry beings.
to survival on many levels: emotional,                                        The greatest sadness in the text is
psychological, financial. Their suicides and the                      Romulus' own story of mental decline under
consequences for the children, husband,                               the weight of "affliction" and unfathomable
brother and friend are a measure of distance                          experience and particularly his incapacity to
between the strength of character of Romulus                          understand malevolence. In this he is a puritan,
and Raimond and the fragility of others less                          a moralist and an innocent. The author
endowed with clarity and fierce determination                         documents the disintegration, paranoia and
to make a life in very challenging and depleted                       superstitious fears that threaten the purity and
circumstances.                                                        transparency of his principles and values after
        The text is scattered with humorous                           his disappointment over Lydia's betrayal and
events and stories that portray a unique life                         so many other struggles and losses. In his
that encompasses both richness and                                    moral perfectionism, Romulus is fierce and
deprivation. The austere nature of the home,                          admirable but not flexible enough to
food, home-made clothing and getting by is                            accommodate inconsistency and the reality of
something the author as a young man registers                         evil.
but does not feel as deprivation, because of                                  This is a son's loving account of a
the love and support and company of Romulus,                          father's life lived with courage and integrity in
Hora and other characters such as the Lillies                         the face of hardship. Above all, it is Romulus'
and even Vacek.                                                       appreciation of human dignity in the face of
        Needs are met and life is full of colour                      humiliating and degrading experience, his love
and passion and at times violence deflected by                        of common humanity and the respect he
ethical thought. The motorbike is never seen                          accords to all people despite his judgements
as an inferior form of transport, the son is                          about their behaviour, that shine through.
contented with his eccentric, simple life at                                  Raimond Gaita, in this and all his work,
Frogmore and comes to love the environment,                           extends the spirit of his father's life. Readers
the light and the vegetation in a different way                       will find it fascinating to see how the film
from his European father.                                             starring Eric Bana as Romulus, which is in
        He writes as one surrounded by support                        cinemas, captures his life and character.
and affection and a valuing of all the mixed
· Discussion of Raimond Gaita and his writing on Life Writing site:
· Multiculturalism and Universalism in Romulus, My Father. David Parker. Critical Review 41 (2001), pages 44-53.

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