On holiday with the family on Phillip island again, but this time at Cape Woolamai, surrounded by water and sea breezes. I am happy to report the standard of literature in this house is a great advance on last year’s. We have discovered the owner of the house is a teacher and an expert in Australian history and literature. Hence the numbers of books by Patrick White, Tim Winton, Sonya Hartnett etc to say nothing of the Eng Lit of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Kate Atkinson, EM Forster and many many more.
I decided I would seek out some old favourites and my first choice was Romulus My Father, by Raimond Gaita.
Raimond Gaita is a professor of moral philosophy at Melbourne University and emeritus professor of moral philosophy at King’s College London, a remarkable achievement for a man who was born in Germany at the end of World War Two. He came to Australia when he was four years old with his parents who were assisted migrants.
But let me explain. In the post war days, before Australia closed its borders, the country had a great need for workers and welcomed migrants from a range of countries by offering an assisted passage and two years accommodation on arrival. Of course, the accommodation was in a migrant camp, and of course the migrants were indentured to work for the Australian government for two years before they could be free to create a life of their own.
Romulus Gaita was one such migrant and Romulus My Father is the story of his life and struggle to survive against poverty, betrayal and mental illness, as told by a loving and grateful son.
Romulus was born in Romania and fled his grandfather’s home at the age of thirteen to escape the violence of a drunken uncle. He went to a village a hundred and fifty kilometres away and found an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.
To earn money, for my father was not paid throughout the entire apprenticeship, he used the skills he had acquired in the village to weave baskets, make brooms and repair revolvers, the last being he most lucrative, With this money he bought clothes – more importantly, a warm coat for the harsh winters.
In post war Germany Romulus found work he loved making iron gates, stairways, and balustrades, but he also met a young woman. Their assignations in a cemetery led to the conception of Raimond and the marriage of Romulus and Christine. On her insistence they emigrated to Australia when Raimond was four years old.
Romulus was sent to Baringhup in Victoria to work as a labourer on the Cairn Curran dam. No attention was paid to his skills or training and as there was no family accommodation, except for Australian workers, he had the stress of trying to care for his son, for by this time his mother’s mental illness was becoming more disabling.
They were happy to find a house to live, in but ‘Frogmore’ was very rough
There was no electricity and no running water. A single kerosene lamp served us well. The one water tank ran dry in our first summer, and so my father installed a second one. Rats lived under the house and occasionally bit us in bed. Visiting us, Hora woke one night to find a large rat tugging at his elbow trying to make off with a piece of flesh. Long brown snakes came to eat the rats and for a time lived under the house, but they did not threaten us.
His father created work for himself. after his time working for the government. His highly unstable wife was involved with other men and was clearly unwell. Raimond became used to her coming and going. He walked six kilometres to school and learnt to ride his father’s motor bike at an illegally young age.
This is a story about friendship and endurance, and the harshness of life for migrants in Australia, but mostly it is a tribute to a man of high principles. Gaita says the book grew out of his eulogy at his father’s funeral. There he said
We sometimes express our most severe judgement of other people by saying that we will never speak to them again. I never heard my father say that nor can I imagine him saying it. That, perhaps more than anything else, testifies to his unqualified sense of humanity with everyone he met. His severe judgement often caused pain. but for the simple honesty of its expression, together with unhesitating acceptance of those whom he judged so severely, convinces me that he never intentionally caused suffering to anyone. He was truly a man who would rather suffer evil than do it.
Romulus My Father was a reread for me and I loved it even more than when I first read it in 1998. It is an authentic and moving account of a loving father, a man who had his own strong ethical values, and a deeply compassionate heart. It is also a damning indictment of the way we ‘welcomed’ New Australians into our country.
Romulus My Father was later made into a film with Eric Bana and Kodi Smit-McPhee