Truth, writing and national belonging in Romulus, My Father

by Brigitta Olubas

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Raimond Gaita’s acclaimed 1998 memoir of his father, Romulus, has recently returned to public consciousness with the release this year of the Richard Roxburgh film starring Eric Bana. In this essay I want to make use of this occasion of a revival of interest in Gaita’s story to return to the memoir and to consider the ways it raises questions of truth in relation to the specifics of the lives it depicts in the context of the vexed and shifting terrain of national belonging. These questions were further rehearsed and explored by Gaita, in the years between the publication of the memoir and the release of the film, most pertinently for this discussion in his 2004 Quarterly Essay, “Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics”, which explores the pressing question of political mendacity in the light of a larger consideration of the nature of human and national belonging, and I want to draw on this writing in my discussion of the memoir.1

I begin by considering the ways memoir’s foregrounding of the workings of memory (over, for instance, narrative) grant it a special propensity to open up the question of the temporality and the porousness of the self, to explore the question of the self in time and in relation to the other, and to consider the relation between these ideas and understandings of individual selfhood and those of community and national belonging. Central to these issues in Gaita’s memoir is the relation between the parent and the child, a relation that by its nature is constituted in temporal terms, and one that in the end cannot accommodate a refusal of otherness. In these terms, Romulus, My Fatherforegrounds a foundational interimplication and interanimation at work in the self produced in and through memoir, a self that is spread out across time by this formulation, and that yet speaks to the specifics of a particular life, and a particular place within the sweep of experience of a nation. This interanimation further inflects the nature and quality of truth and truthfulness, what Gaita refers to as the work of ‘bear[ing] witness’ that is at the heart of memoir writing, in an essay that accompanies the published screenplay (viii). Alongside Gaita’s memoir, therefore, I want to consider another meditation on the nature of memory, truth and the problematics of writing, in particular writing about human goodness: Flannery O’Connor’s 1962 essay “Introduction to the Life of Mary Ann”.2

Gaita’s memoir and the film based on it tell the moving story of his parents’ harsh lives as post-WWII refugees in rural Australia, with both works peopling, almost as if for the first time, the desolate countryside of national memory with the voices, the bodies and the stories of non-Anglo Europeans. In the course of this account of fragility, despair, loss and resilience, the memoir works to articulate an ethical understanding of the self, a self constituted in relation to the other, and this is seen most intensely in the friendship Gaita describes between his father, Romulus and Romulus’ friend Pantelimon Hora, a friendship understood firstly as an essential humanity that takes the form of conversation:

Their individuality was inseparable from their talk – it was revealed in it and made by it, by its honesty. I learnt from them the connection between individuality and character and the connection between those and the possibility of ‘having something to say’, of seeing another person as being fully and distinctively another perspective on the world. Which is to say I learnt from them the connection between conversation and Otherness (72-3).

The sense of self that develops through the memoir is, I will suggest, haunted by others, and rendered uncertain, and even mysterious by relations with those others. In this, and in the ways it is characterised by moments of witness, it recalls the complex interplay of writing, reading and remembering selves dramatised in O’Connor’s essay, which begins by describing her resistance to an invitation she receives from an order of nuns to write the life story of a child who had died of cancer. Sister Evangelist’s letter sketches the child Mary Ann’s exemplary life, noting that it “‘should be written but who to write it?’ Not me, I said to myself”, responds O’Connor (214). As the essay continues, her reluctant embrace of the story of the afflicted child draws her back into the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, that is to say, into her own national literary inheritances, and into an engagement with the slippery figure of the author, haunted by his or her own acts, in and between published stories and personal reflections. For O’Connor, further, the problematics of memoir writing – the complexities of truth and witness – are exacerbated by the presence of goodness; as she puts it “stories of pious children tend to be false” (213), and I propose to use the account she provides of the writing and reading of Mary Ann’s story to inflect Gaita’s discussion of truth and morality, despite and in the face of the differences of cultural location and writerly positionality between the two.

Romulus, My Father presents a family unit which strains at the limits of its various cultural and social formulations. Even at the most literal level, a rigidly social conception of the family unit cannot account for the relations between the young Raimond, his parents and their friends, most tellingly in the ways Raimond is called on to understand and care for his parents in their respective mental illnesses. The memoir proposes a generosity in the face of parental fragility that appears to be at odds with the constraints and delimitation, temporal and imaginative, of the family unit, particularly in the ways it is conventionally understood through the familiar tropes of, here, the migrant family and the ‘bad mother’. Here, state care for the child is rendered impossible in terms of the conventional family unit due to the mother Christina’s mental and emotional illnesses and the sex-segregated camps to which Raimond’s father is confined as a migrant-refugee. In the face of this conceptual impasse – how to care for the child – comes Romulus’ understanding of the absolute and in-between nature of parental care, with its mutual constitutions, concerns and responsibilities. These relations are thus in excess of the specific conditions of modern life, here the imperatives of post-war Australia. While the continuing resonances of family histories weave for us a structure of care that is at its heart ethical, caught up in the substance of contemporary existence3, we are impelled by this memoir to think and to imagine beyond the present of the self and the state, to take up the possibilities memoir offers of bringing the ghosts of past selves and stories to bear insistently on the contemporary, to see the work of forming the present world in terms of our uncertain engagements with what is also not present.

This making of the self takes place, over and over, not simply within the family, then, but rather within the particular relations between children and parents, and further, between one’s own childhood and maturity. Sociologist Andrew Metcalfe argues for the use of the term “middle-age” to suggest what he calls a “medium of interbeing” in relations with oneself and others: “shifting the term . to an experiential domain, using it in relation to a way of being that is not, in principle, about birth date. [So] . middle-age . is a relation between age categories”, and is seen in an image of unknowing, of the mystery of our relations with others: “When you look into or through someone’s eyes, the destitution of their face, where or what or who are ‘you’ and ‘they’?” (151).

Metcalfe’s formulation articulates what he calls a “fluidity of the relation” (151) between the terms of ‘you’ and ‘they’ alongside an explicit bearing witness, at once traumatic and constitutive, that renders the relation between parent and child at once intimate, familiar and unutterably strange. Such a relation fails always to anchor identities in terms of chronology or final responsibility, and in this way, the self – the ‘I’ or ‘you’ invoked and at work in his essay – is always both parent and child, and is secure or complete in neither position. The look Metcalfe describes here is, I want to propose, what is at issue in Gaita’s account of conversation; it is also the crystallising moment in O’Connor’s essay for herself and for Hawthorne, a moment of mystery rather than recognition, across the forms and temporalities of memory and cultural inheritance. O’Connor explains in the essay how she is sent, along with the invitation to write the life-story of Mary Ann, a photograph of the child herself:

I had glanced at it when I first opened the letter, and had put it quickly aside. Now I picked it up to give it a last cursory look before returning it to the Sisters. It showed a little girl in her First Communion dress and veil. She was sitting on a bench, holding something I could not make out. Her small face was straight and bright on one side. The other side was protuberant, the eye was bandaged, the nose and mouth crowded slightly out of place. The child looked out at her observer with an obvious happiness and composure. I continued to gaze at the picture long after I had thought to be finished with it (215).

Looking into the picture of Mary Ann’s face stalls O’Connor’s dismissing of her story, leading her in the first instance to return to one of Hawthorne’s stories “The Birthmark”, on reading which she muses that Mary Ann’s disfigurement “was plainly grotesque. She belonged to fact and not to fancy” (216). In light of this she turns to another story “Our Old Home” where Hawthorne describes the experience of:

a fastidious gentleman, who, while going through a Liverpool workhouse, was followed by a wretched and rheumy child, so awful-looking that he could not decide what sex it was. The child followed him about until it decided to put itself in front of him in a mute appeal to be held. The fastidious gentleman, after a pause that was significant for himself, picked it up and held it (217).

Hawthorne’s narrator draws attention to the ways that acts of social observation work to produce and reproduce isolation and insulation, what he calls “putting ice in the blood”, a process interrupted by the embrace, by the human and compassionate response to the child’s mute but eloquent appeal. O’Connor notes a further confusion or crossing of selfhood at work in this interpellation: “What Hawthorne neglected to add is that he was the gentleman who did this”, linking this figure to that of generation by quoting from his notebook account of the story: “It was a foundling, and out of all human kind it chose me to be its father!” (218). She continues to draw connections across Hawthorne’s life and work, remarking that his daughter Rose, who founded the Dominican Congregation, the order to which the nuns who had cared for Mary Ann belonged, and who “later wrote that the account of this incident in the Liverpool workhouse seemed to her to contain the greatest words her father ever wrote”, herself “discovered much that he sought, and fulfilled in a practical way the hidden desires of his life” (219).

These generative and generational figures of parents and children, crossing sex and age, are woven dextrously by O’Connor through her essay, drawing us to pause at the crossings of life and writing, of observation and affect, of memory and loss and truth. They are passing points of abject misery and compassion in the face of the call of the social world and the proprieties we fashion to protect ourselves precisely from such vulnerabilities; points that come, we see, to work our own undoing. Gaita invokes just such figures in his 2004 essay, in a discussion of the imperatives to compassion that are called up by a consideration of the morality of torture. He relates the story told by Primo Levi in If This Is a Man, about his witnessing of an act of charity and compassion practised by his friend, Charles, in his care of a fellow inmate, Ladmaker, in Auschwitz:

The whole episode is something to wonder at, but most wondrous is the fact that Charles should have responded ‘with the tenderness of a mother’. A religious person might say that Charles responded to Ladmaker as someone who is sacred. Certainly it is an example of the same kind of love that has been shown by saints, and it might well be used as an example to show what it means to love one’s neighbour, but one needn’t be religious – I am not – to respond to Charles’ affirmation of the preciousness of the wretched Ladmaker (58).

Here once again figures of parental care and of grace structure the necessary social relations of compassion that in themselves articulate a humanity that is not closed off to the other.

Metcalfe’s “middle-age” likewise speaks to this selfhood, that is formed around traces of others: “middle-age is an uncannily possessed condition, haunted and inspired by voices that seem to come from within but do not quite seem ours.” It is further a relation of caring:

a condition that knows the world not through the grip of apprehension but through the touching or compassionate hand: it connects us to others who are old or young but doesn’t let us speak in place of them. Rather than insisting on oneness, distinction and autonomy, it emphasises relationality, nothingness and the in-between (152).

These refigurings and crossings that exceed individualised and located temporality draw us into different relations with the truthfulness that we find in the memoir form.Romulus My Father traces Romulus’ journey from Yugoslavia to eastern Australia after the Second World War, through marriage, friendship, migration, grief, insanity, work and death. It structures its account of a man’s life through and in terms of his ethical coming to be, and in place of what Metcalfe calls a “self-possessed” (151) selfhood, offers Romulus’ conception of character:

Character – or kar a cter as they pronounced it, with the emphasis on the second syllable – was the central moral concept for my father and Hora. It stood for a settled disposition for which it was possible rightly to admire someone (101-102).

As an embodied morality, kar a cter organises the self always in relation – able to be admired, never self-sufficient, open to the other in directing one’s actions well. This concept is clearly linked to the importance of conversation in its openness to the other, to a flow of sociality that nourishes, challenges and extends the self without consolidating it. Kar a cter is related to other qualities of self, including skill at a trade:

I have never seen a workman as skilled as my father. His unboastful confidence in what he could do impressed me as much as his achievements. He was so at ease with his materials and always so respectful of their nature that they seemed in friendship with him, as though consenting to his touch rather than subjugated by him (97).

Thus skill and craftsmanship are interanimated with morality, and worthy expertise is at once moral and material. This is an embodied ethics that draws on the hand equally with the heart, and that takes us from the hand to the face as the site of our sociability, our conversation, our having something to say.

Parental care further exemplifies this relational self. In the face of Christina’s depressive illness, Romulus takes on, with the assistance of his friends, sole care of their son:

My father would walk up to eighty kilometres for a litre of milk or for a small sack of beans or potatoes. Exhausted by his efforts to get food for us and because he denied himself so that I would have more, he fainted from hunger on more than one occasion (5).

On the one hand, we might see the actions described here as grounded in more traditional parental self-abnegation, a charitable mode carrying costs that can of course never be repaid. However, this relation of care is reiterated years later as Raimond works with Romulus to build the headstone for Christina’s grave, in a figure illustrating what Metcalfe means, I think, when he points out that the parent cares for him or herself in his or her care of the child; while the child in its demands, anticipates the needs of the parents (158). Gaita writes:

In the summer sun we did our remorseful work. We dug the foundations, carried sand from the creek at Carisbrook, mixed the cement and built the monument. My four-year-old daughter Katie played among the graves, guaranteeing that we would not yield to morbidity. At one point my father rested on his shovel and cried. ‘Memories,’ he said.

With shaking hands he rolled a cigarette which he smoked to help control his tears, and he spoke compassionately of my mother’s troubled life. Working together, our sorrow lightened by the presence of a young girl representing new life and hope we came together as son and husband with the woman whose remains lay beneath us (113-114).

This passage is marked by a complex and yet utterly prosaic temporality, where family relations are determined by care and labour on behalf of another rather than simply or onerously by chronology. The persistence of loss, the impossibility of closure over the death of a mother, frames an understanding of family relations in terms of generation as a mode of interrelation, and recalls Flannery O’Connor’s meditation on the mediations of love and compassion, the adequacy, the fit of literary and moral genres and forms, and the persistent excesses of love and its awkward embodiments. O’Connor folds literary inheritance alongside family relations when she marks the point in Hawthorne’s narrative where the child of indeterminate sex chooses Hawthorne as its father through a repeated and persistent embrace. In a related move, the internment of Christina draws her story and her loss into the present, and sets it alongside Gaita’s memories of the parental care exercised by Romulus and his friend Hora – the sewing, the cooking, the buying and growing food – that work to fill the maternal spaces rendered bereft by Christina’s mental and emotional distress and incapacity.

These questions of relation and care, the terms and temporalities within which the self is formed, bear, finally, on the question of truth, itself central to memoir. Gaita writes in the essay that accompanies the screenplay that:

There is no single reason why I wrote Romulus, but I wrote it partly because I wanted to bear witness to, rather than merely record, or even celebrate, the values that defined my father’s moral identity. Considered purely as literature, separable from the strict truthfulness of its narrative voice, my book does not have much to recommend it, I think.

I am certain that the way people have been moved by it is inseparable from the fact that they believe it to be entirely without fabrication. They recognize, I believe, if only instinctively, that it bears witness to the values it celebrates. The integrity of witness seldom, if ever, survives invention, however honourable the motive for it might be. Were Romulus exposed as fraudulent, or seriously mistaken, no publisher would recommend that it be reissued as fiction (viii).

His description of “the spirit of witness that is essential to the book’s contract to reality”, as “a very particular moral reality” renders it akin, I would argue, to Mary Ann’s “obvious happiness and composure” in the face of her affliction. For Gaita, his father’s goodness, and the truth of this goodness, are exemplified in his relationship with Vacek, a friend from the refugee camps who is insane. Romulus treats Vacek with:

a compassion that was without a trace of condescension. Most people would sincerely profess that everyone should behave like that to people like Vacek, but almost everyone I have known cannot do it. This is not because of failings in what might be called their moral character. Theirs is a failure of perception (ix).

In other words, in Romulus’ capacity to perceive a common humanity rests not only his own individual moral wisdom, the core of his goodness, but also the possibility of its articulation, and indeed the responsibility that we face to do so, to bear witness to “a goodness that claims one but whose existence seems to defy reason” (ix). In this sense, then, the imperatives that face the writer are also those of human relations, the face as well as the story of the afflicted child. When Gaita writes: “For my father, truthfulness was [not an abstract principle, but] a condition of human interchange, a condition of conversation” (xvii), he is also explaining the ways that the protagonists of his story cannot be severed from the moral and psychic dramas they have inhabited, cannot be confined to the times or truths of history. The aesthetic imperatives are likewise those articulated by Flannery O’Connor, both in her initial refusal of Sister Evangelist’s proposal – “‘ This wouldn’t have to be a factual story. It could be a novel with many characters but the outstanding character, Mary Ann.’ A novel, I thought. Horrors.” (214) – a refusal that is vindicated by the finished document: “there was everything about the writing to make the professional writer groan” (222). “Yet”, she continues, “when I had finished reading, I remained for some time, the imperfections of the writing forgotten, thinking about the mystery of Mary Ann. They had managed to convey it” (223).

The point O’Connor is pressing here is in part an attempt to articulate and distinguish the complicated imbrication within the memoir, of aesthetics and truth; the rhetorical force of skilful and apt expression (not far but far enough from truth) against the weight of truthfulness itself, at once rhetorical, embodied and to an extent, inexplicable, the both-and of Gaita’s sense of his story’s protagonists, verified according to historical principles but not reducible to them. It is also, I have suggested, for both writers, a point where aesthetic questions come up against other human relations, in particular, compassion.

O’Connor’s Catholicism is of course everywhere in her writing, while Gaita writes avowedly from an agnostic position, and they write likewise from disparate points in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, their engagements with the question and the consequences of truth, and the ways it is to be pursued across the forms, figures and genres of writing, both fictional and non-fictional, meet at rich and significant points. Gaita’s premise in his essay on truth is that truth is grounded in human contact and understanding, which he understands as a mode of conversation, and which speaks to our specificity; to family, community, to the detail and the matter of our daily lives. It speaks also to our modes of language, to the words we speak, hear and read. His essay argues for the impacts of truth in the contemporary world, and the demands that this places on citizens, through an account that works toward an understanding of what he calls “political illiteracy” (64). These political concerns recall the determining tropes of O’Connor’s discussion of the work of the writer in the face of the complex demands made of citizens of ‘the most powerful nation on earth’, where she spells out the continuing significance of a certain locatedness in writing.

The film of Romulus, My Father makes much of the memoir’s setting in central Victoria, in a representation of landscape that owes as much to the history of film as to topography, recalling as it does so graphically the vistas of classic Australian coming-of-age films like My Brilliant Career (1979) and The Year My Voice Broke (1987). In this way it draws on a complex visual archive charting the possibilities of an Australian selfhood, and the problematics of its mediation through forms and structures that are insistently European. My Brilliant Career interrogates the already complex way that gender bears on genre, producing the imperative to renunciation, and the risky transcendence of the artist; while a decade later the loss that haunts The Year My Voice Broke, its account of coming-to-selfhood also inflected with gender, generates rather the imperatives to mobility and even supersession. Romulus, My Father, in its light but evocative reference to both these works, yet sidesteps such acts of renunciation, transcendence or supersession. Rather, in filling the landscape with the voices and forms of migrant Australians eating bread, drinking coffee, washing eggs, it draws on tropes of the impossible fit of European genres to provide a view of the Australian landscape that is densely imbued with its own foreignness. Its account of national belonging, then, is structured around the inadequacy of European forms to come to terms with the matter of the land, in the face of the necessity to do so. Gaita figures the complexity of this engagement with the landscape in generational terms:

Most immigrants found the countryside alien and hostile. Their children usually came to love it, but often in ways that showed their origins. Because I accepted my father’s European fatalism and made it my own, the light and the colours of Central Victoria became for me the light and colours of tragedy..Many people have remarked that they hear a distinctive voice in my work. That voice was formed growing up in the landscape of central Victoria with my Romanian father, his Romanian friend Pantelimon Hora, haunted by my German mother, amongst the Anglo-Celtic men and women who farmed it and worked its towns (Screenplay xviii).

The landscape of the film thus speaks to the diversity of the times of the nation, and Gaita’s story of traumatic arrival (the bleak stretch of road up which Christina walks toward the hut is the same track along which the young Raimond rides his bike in scenes of joyous connection with the landscape) overlays colonial accounts with other forms of loss and pleasure, other modes of articulation, and returns us to the imperatives of truth and of language that animate the memoir, and Gaita’s important contribution to our understandings of national belonging.


Brigitta Olubas is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales. She has published widely in the area of contemporary Australian literary and visual culture. Her most recent publication is Women Making Time: Contemporary Feminist Critique and Cultural Analysis, co-edited with Elizabeth McMahon.


1. The question of truth is discussed by David Parker, in his 2001 essay, where he takes up the question of the narrative or ‘textual’ as distinct from the ‘historical’ (53) dimension of the memoir’s characters. Gaita’s response to this essay, printed alongside it, takes issue with the reading of the work through such a distinction, making the point that “[t]rust in the book’s truthfulness is inseparable from trust in my truthfulness because the truthfulness in question is the truthfulness of witness. Such trust will not survive even many mistakes, let alone invention” (56). This point is developed further in his essay that accompanies the published screenplay.

2.Thanks to Elizabeth McMahon for suggesting O’Connor’s essay to me when I was beginning work on this paper.

3.I’m drawing here on Foucault’s discussion of the modern ethical self, formed through the making of voluntary choices and in terms that, according to Simon During, constitute a contrast to the “subject of modern power, produced in bio-power and the disciplinary archipelago. The modern ethical subject asks, as a matter of choice, ‘what is the present?’ and answers by setting him or herself the task of fashioning ‘a way of thinking or feeling’ appropriate to belonging to ‘a cultural ensemble characteristic of contemporaneity'” (175).


During, Simon. Foucault and Literature: Towards a Genealogy of Writing. London &  New York: Routledge, 1992.

Gaita, Raimond. Romulus, My Father. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1998.

Gaita, Raimond. “Romulus, My Father: A Reply”. The Critical Review, 41 (2001): 54-65.

Gaita, Raimond. “Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics.” Quarterly Essay Issue 16, 2004: 1-68.

Gaita, Raimond. “Romulus, My Father: From Book to Screenplay to Film.” In Nick Drake. Romulus, My Father: Screenplay. Sydney: Currency Press, 2007: vii-xxiv.

Metcalfe, Andrew. “Middle Age.” UTS Review 6/1 2000: 150-164.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Introduction to the Life of Mary Ann.” In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. London: Faber: 1972: 213-228.

Parker, David. “Multiculturalism and Universalism in Romulus, My Father. The Critical Review, 41 (2001): 44-53.

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