REVIEW

Roger Pulvers' memoir, The Unmaking of an American, is a fascinating account of a muti-faceted life

Roger Pulvers has been the author of more than 45 books in Japanese and English as well as a playwright, theatre director, journalist and translator. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Roger Pulvers has been the author of more than 45 books in Japanese and English as well as a playwright, theatre director, journalist and translator. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Although Gore Vidal called his memoir Palimpsest, Roger Pulvers should have appropriated that title.

His "memoir of life in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia" is an artful set of overlays and overlaps, "flash-backs and fast-forwards".

He shifts between continents, while playing with time sequences, always in an earnest attempt to decipher "the sequential labyrinth of events".

Like many folk who lead examined lives, Pulvers wonders about the role of luck in life, he ponders the nature of fate, and he dissects his own motives and intentions.

As the grandson of an illiterate, disabled immigrant to the United States, Pulvers has re-invented himself numerous times. He has been an author, playwright, traveller, translator, journalist, theatre and film director. His has been a good run.

As Pulvers remarks of his childhood, "I had little to complain about". This book includes an excellent translation of a poem by Sergei Esenin, and Pulvers could fairly borrow one of Esenin's characterisations for himself. He has been "a frowning pilgrim".

In 1972, Pulvers found himself in Australia "to scratch lines on what, at the very least, was to be my third clean slate". Pulvers borrows a Japanese word to praise Canberra for its "soboku", or unspoiled simplicity.

He went swimming nude with two platypuses and Judith Wright, as well as finding time to write book reviews for this newspaper.

He rather deftly applies another Japanese turn of phrase to illustrate Australia's tall poppy syndrome. "'The Japanese proverb, It's dark under the lighthouse' applies to Australia with a greater aptness than to Japan."

Pulvers' Canberra sojourn is one highlight of his narrative. We are offered vignettes of his earlier life; Pulvers recollects hats, balloons and hundred dollar bills at the 1960 Democratic convention.

He recalls the "pernicious absurdities" of Moscow in 1965, exemplified when he was obliged to buy a gross of condoms.

Pulvers has written extensively on Japan, but makes lots of room in this book for his observations on Japanese history and national character.

Intriguingly, that commentary is refracted through Japanese reactions to his own creative works, themselves often inspired by Japanese themes.

His insights into Japan are sufficiently deep for Pulvers to have been invited to lecture on cultural diplomacy at the Japanese Cabinet Office. He admirably skewers "pre-emptive sycophancy" among Japanese.

He also does well to impose coherence on a picaresque, polymath life.

  • The Unmaking of an American, by Roger Pulvers. Balestier Press. $25.
This story A deft account of an examined and fascinating life first appeared on The Canberra Times.