lost personal history

The somewhat oddly worded sentence in the post below this one is from a reader’s report on a manuscript of mine. It was a positive report and the book in question will be published in due course, I just don’t know when yet – more on that later. Reader’s reports are a genre, or more correctly, sub-genre of their own, one with a very limited readership; they are in many respects like reviews, but they are reviews before the fact of the book and are usually read only by the publishers and the author in question. I find I scan them very quickly, looking for the essential information, the recommendation; and then, whether positive or negative, try to forget them. With this one, however, that one sentence leapt off the page and I had to go back to look at it again. It wasn’t the oddness of the construction, I didn’t notice that at first – but the thought contained therein : the book shows a deep fascination with New Zealand—but it is essentially New Zealand as a foreign country embedded with a lost personal history. Is that really true, I wondered? Is that what it is for me? A foreign country embedded with a lost personal history? Which took me back to the first part, where the word exile is used. That in turn reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend not long after I first arrived in Australia in 1981. He was a fellow NZer, an old Red Mole, and we were discussing the pros and cons of life in Sydney as opposed to life in Auckland – when I suggested that he might see his sojourn here as a kind of exile. No, he said, that’s too romantic for me. He was surely right, and my reader surely wrong. If you’re an exile, that means you can’t go back, doesn’t it? Whereas I can go back whenever I like, it’s as simple as jumping on a plane. Which is what my friend did, a few years after the conversation in question, and has lived, happily I hope, there ever since. But then there’s the lost personal history to consider; and here things become a little more complicated. Is the lost personal history the life I would have lived if had I stayed in the country of my birth? Is there some sort of alternative autobiography, a ghost or shadow life, implied? Or does it mean, rather, that anyone who leaves the place they come from also loses thereby their veritable past? In other words, does the actual life they lived before they left become inaccessible to them? Or at the very least, does it take on a different meaning from the one it would have had if they had stayed? Well, so much is obvious, isn’t it? In my own case, however, ‘exile’, if that is the right word, happened when I was quite young, just ten years old, and was a kind of psychic shift that has largely determined, not just the life I’ve lived since but also the kind of writing I’ve done. I mean I’ve been essentially rootless since my first uprooting, which was, in the nature of things, incontrovertible, absolute and without remedy. This is, in some deep and partly occluded way, what the book in question is about, only I did not realise it until I read that sentence in the reader’s report. I wouldn’t want to make too many other claims for it, beyond saying that most people these days carry with them something that is not truly lost, not exactly personal, perhaps not even a history – and yet at the same time is all those things.

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