My father disliked lies but he absolutely hated it when something in print was false. To him, books were holy and the printed word was the cornerstone of civilisation. He could not believe that people would sink so low as to print something that wasn’t true.
One day my mother called to tell me that my father was reading a book called Storyteller in which it was shown that the South African author Lourens van der Post had lied in almost every detail of his autobiographical works.
“Your father is incensed,” she relished. “He’s read all of van der Post’s books, and now he feels betrayed.”
My father picked up the other phone.
“He wrote,” he fumed, “that he could speak Zulu before he spoke Afrikaans. It turns out he grew up in the Free State, without a Zulu in sight!”
It was difficult to hear my father because my mother was laughing so hard.
“Here, wait,” my father seethed. “He knew all there was to know about whaling, but it turns out he only spent four days on a whaling trawler out of Durban.”
“So what?” I asked.
“He claimed he was a diplomat,” my father choked. “And that he knew Carl Jung!”
“He was a writer,” I said. “So what if he lied?”
My father ignored this and read a whole quoted paragraph. “Not a word of that is true!” he cried. “Can you believe it?”
“Well,” I said, “you did.”
“Just think,” my mother interjected, “this old man was venerated by lords who rolled his words like expensive cigars. He was knighted. They made him the godfather of Prince William! And meanwhile he’d invented this life they so adored.”
“Doesn’t that upset you?” my father asked with what sounded like pure wonder.
“Upset?” my mother laughed. “I think it’s wonderful.”
“Keep talking,” my father croaked. “I’m going to find his other books and check a few things.”
“He’s going to read them all again,” my mother said when my father had gone. “He’ll examine them with scientific precision. For the next month he’ll try and get me to see what intellectual treason van der Post had committed.”
She took a drag on her cigarette.
“Sometimes I wonder about your father,” she added.
My father picked up the other phone again. “I’m starting with a harmless one,” he announced, almost out of breath, “The seed and the sower. I’ll work my way down from there.”