By Rolf Knight. New Star, 314 pp, softcover
Burnaby-based anthropologist and historian Rolf Knight’s memoir is dry, righteous, and strangely reticent about its author’s emotional life. So why is it so fascinating? Perhaps because Voyage Through the Past Century really is a voyage—an unmoored and circuitous journey through Knight’s 70-year experience of cultures both strange and familiar, near and far.
Not all of his exotic locales are geographically distant. Knight’s old enough to have experienced Vancouver when a driftwood fire on Sunset Beach was a reasonable Saturday-night entertainment, and when his working-class parents could buy an ocean-view shack for what one might easily spend on a tent today. A photo of the author as a preteen, riding his bicycle through East Vancouver, shows a landscape so grassy it might be the Prairies, while the remote mining and construction camps he encountered as a child and then as a very young worker sound so primitive they seem to belong to the early days of the Industrial Revolution rather than to the 1950s.
This sense of the past permeating the near present is amplified in Knight’s reports from Nigeria in the later ’50s, where ancient customs were butting up against an emerging oil economy, and from the sugar-cane plantations of Colombia in the early ’60s, where feudal overlords made sure a campesino’s life truly was nasty, brutish, and short.
Knight conveys his observations in a clear, dispassionate tone that masks considerable anger. A lifelong socialist whose parents were escapees from reactionary Germany, he’s appalled by man’s inhumanity to man, and also saddened by the seeming end of the socialist dream. This brings a world-weariness to his late-life musings, a sense that while things have changed, they have not always changed for the better.
It’s hard to disagree, but Voyage Through the Past Century also suggests that there is reason to hope. Buoyed in part by a strong teachers’ union, the education system has certainly improved since Knight’s stultifying experiences at Hastings School in the 1940s. Meanwhile, several countries in South America, including Colombia, appear to have woken from their near-medieval slumber. Positive change is still possible—and despite Knight’s occasionally resigned tone, his book will inspire those working toward that end.