Sunday Star Times

Sunday, 27 June 2004

Review: Dark Sun – Erika Grundmann


Iain Sharp asks whether a German-born Kiwi’s freedom-loving charisma makes up for his love-’em-and-leave-’em habits. A man who declared himself a citizen of the world flew his own flag and designed his own passport, yet was held captive on Somes Island because of his German nationality during both world wars, George Dibbern was certainly a remarkable character. Whether he was also an admirable one is harder to decide, but it’s the question which gives Erika Grundmann’s well-researched biography its peculiar fascination.Was Dibbern a far-sighted visionary with a liberating new philosophy, as he suggested in his 1941 book Quest? Or, for all his charismatic charm, was he at heart a self-centred sod, like good Kiwi man Barry Crump and American beatnik hero Neal Cassady, who couldn’t commit to anything except his own itches and dumped people once they had outlived their usefulness or lost their sex appeal?

Born in the German port of Kiel in 1889, he was the son of a sea captain who died of malaria when George was only six. His strong-willed mother did her best to provide for her family but she died of cancer in 1907 while her son was sitting his school-leaving exams. His marks were good enough to take him to university but he opted to go to sea.

Harsh naval discipline didn’t suit his rebellious temperament, however. He jumped ship In Sydney In 1909, took short-term labouring jobs, worked for a while at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains, caught a steamer to New Zealand, returned to Sydney via Tasmania, tried to sell canvas canoes, failed, went back to New Zealand, washed cars in Napier, then started a taxi business In Dannevirke. This restlessness never left him.

In Dannevirke he became friendly with local Maori. He fit so well into the community, working as a bee farmer, that he was largely untroubled by authorities throughout most of World War I. It was not until June 1918 that he was interned as an enemy alien on Somes Island In Wellington Harbour.

Repatriated after the war, he married the cousin of a schoolfriend and fathered three daughters. But 1920s Germany, with its massive unemployment and galloping inflation, was an inhospitable place for a man like George who hadn’t finished his apprenticeship as a seaman and didn’t have a university degree. One business venture failed after another until in August 1930 he decided to sail to New Zealand in a 32-foot yacht he named Te Rapunga, which can be translated as ‘the moment just before the first light of dawn; the moment of longing, unrestricted by place and space and time’. The trip proved circuitous.

The boat didn’t arrive in Auckland till March 1934. The early part of the voyage was funded by wealthy Baroness Dorothée von Fritsch, with whom George had an affair, bickered, parted, made up, then bickered again—a pattern he would repeat with several other women.The political situation darkened. Refusing to fly the swastika, which Germany demanded, aboard Te Rapunga, George continued to voyage around the Pacific. He had come to regard the boat and the ocean as his real home. He was arrested in Napier (hometown of his lover Eileen Morris) in February 1941 and returned to Somes Island. He continued his travels afterwards, dying in Auckland in 1962 without ever seeing his wife and children again, though he had continued to write to them.

A Canadian of German descent, Erika Grundmann spent 12 years tracing Dibbern’s incessant movements. At times the book becomes bogged down—sea-logged, I guess one should say—under the sheer weight of detail. But there’s a generosity in its approach. We are left to make up our own minds about George. We see both what was splendid and enticing about the man and what was infuriating and costly to those who wanted to pin him down.

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