Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita

indexThe migrant experience is given an emotional charge in this autobiography, Romulus My Father by Raimond Gaita. The book is a moving, fascinating read that has endured as a favourite in Australia since winning the 1998 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, remaining on the bestsellers list ever since.

At its core is an exploration of a father and son’s love amid the turmoil of migration, familial madness and the lingering pain wrought on individuals who experience maternal rejection. We see Gaita as a man who has struggled with his own demons relating to this, but also as someone who has clearly transcended it. Gaita displays an unusual amount of compassion for his mother who consistently disappoints him with her neglect during his early childhood. Yet somehow, despite this, he rises beyond victimhood to see her as a woman belonging to the wrong time and place and as a victim of her own insanity also.

What allows him to do so? His father, Romulus, acts as his life’s redemption. A fascinating character – posessing his own moral code of right and wrong, swathes of compassion and an unwavering love for his son. His father somehow manages this despite the hardships he faces, caring almost solely for Gaita as a small child and providing for his family in a new and radically different land. Beginning with the migrant experience of Romulus and his wife and son moving to country Victoria from Europe, it explores the importance of belonging to family, place and landscape. The rugged beauty of Victoria is repeated in Gaita’s descriptions and forms the basis for his exploration of self and identity as a young boy. Against the stark landscape, the story explores the great challenges migrants faced, particularly Gaita’s parents, in settling into the isolation of Australian rural life and the difficult paths they forged for their children.

The story is told through the lense of an older man reflecting on his youth. Its uniqueness is maintaining emotional honesty while avoiding falling into the narrative of victimhood both in terms of the childhood neglect he suffers and his struggles of being born to migrant parents. There are moments that actually moved me to tears, particularly the compassion he shows his mother, but mostly its the consistency of his father’s love that will strike such a chord in readers. In this sense the book reads as a love letter penned by a son to his father.

There is pain to be found in the pages of this book but mostly there is redemption and hope fuelled by the power of love. It is also a book that can be knocked over in one weekend easily because of its slim size. Well worth every word.