Inspired By History, A Novelist Writes Of Jewish South Africa
Roughly three-quarters of South Africa's Jewish population are descendants of Lithuanian immigrants. Of these peasants, townspeople, tradesmen, shopkeepers and intellectuals who fled centuries of persecution and embarked on a passage to Africa, many dreamed of a new land and the promise of new beginnings. Kenneth Bonert's ancestors were part of this diaspora. In his debut novel, written in language as dense and varied as the South African landscape he describes, Bonert delivers a taut, visceral account of a young Jewish boy's African life.
These are the years of the Great Depression, the period between the wars. The protagonist, Isaac Helger, arrives in South Africa with his mother and younger sister, reuniting with a father who had made the journey years before. Their reunion marks the beginning of family life, but the fate of the relatives left behind, and the impact of a separation they all pray will be temporary, will reach far into their future. Most affected by this separation is Gitelle, Isaac's mother — a woman who has more reason than most to leave the past behind.
The voices of Isaac and his mother especially are brought to life through Bonert's skilful prose — a beguiling mixture of delicate, poetic sensitivity and rugged, at times despondent, masculinity. Dialogue is believably rendered in language that is visceral and heavily inflected with the Yiddish, Afrikaans and South African accent that make up the particular voice of the Helger family's migration. As their ship lands in Cape Town, Gitelle's first experience of this new country is almost overwhelming, so vivid is the description:
Colors burned the air, blood flowers, thorny eruptions of vermilion, limeyellow smears on the rocks like veins of fresh paint ... she saw human beings burned the color of coal or dark-brewed tea or cured leather; she smelled their alien sweat and their tangy cooking, heard the mad bibbering of their manifold tongues. A strange music that made her heart sing in fear of this shattering place.
Gitelle does not linger long on this fear, for we soon learn that what she has survived is so terrible that there is little left that she cannot endure. When we meet Gitelle, her face is covered with a veil, and while the source and nature of the deformity she is hiding are not clear in the early pages of the book, her determination is. Very quickly she sets to building a home for her family. In one memorable scene she clears out the "bladerfools" and "parasites" — the friends she feels are sapping her watchmaker husband's time and energy.
Though Gitelle remains a necessary and constant focus of the narrative, it is Isaac's life that the story follows. He is not always a sympathetic character — rough-hewn, bull-headed and often violent. As Isaac grows from a boyhood filled with fights, truancy and early disregard for the rules of this new place, his mother urges him constantly to a better future. Theirs is a potentially destructive relationship of tenderness and mutual dependence.
Together they dream of moving to a house in a better suburb — one that will have room for the sisters she still hopes, despite the passage of time and anti-Jewish immigration laws, to rescue from Lithuania. Spurred by her blind faith, Isaac leaves school with no qualifications and bets on several money-making schemes (some legal, many not). Eventually, in a show of youthful independence, he defies his mother's wishes and settles in as an apprentice in an auto-repair shop.
Throughout all this, Bonert does not shirk from the fetid truth upon which the opportunities of immigrants such as the Helger's are built. The Lion Seeker deftly handles the questions of compliance and collusion that mark this period in history. Fleeing hardship in Europe, Isaac and his family now claim a new status; no longer at the bottom of the pile. Life may be difficult and they may still face prejudice, but at least they are not black. Gitelle, with a determined sense of self-preservation, puts it to Isaac plainly: "We are Jews but we are Whites here. If People see you with Coloreds and hear you talk like that ... then they will think maybe we have coffee in our blood also ... That's dangerous. Do you understand me?"
Thankfully, Bonert is too thoughtful a writer to allow Isaac an epiphany and the resulting bleeding heart. Instead, Isaac is only too willing to claim the superior status that his white skin gives him. His prejudice is not a thought-out thing, although no less diminishing for that lack of intent. Bonert makes this point with carefully considered characterization and scenes that are unforgiving in their judgement. Isaac's easy acceptance of the privileges his color allows make him as complicit as all around him.
Isaac falls in love with the lithesome Yvonne, the spoiled only child of a wealthy English-speaking couple. She's of a class that is voluble in their liberal affectations. No matter that the very fabric of their lives depends on the inequalities of this pre-apartheid era. Yvonne's criticism that Isaac is willfully ignorant of the "Native Question" causes tension, causing Isaac is at last to question his easy acceptance of the status quo. However, his own experience of working with blacks — and forming friendships, of a kind, with them — far outstrips the tennis-club rhetoric of Yvonne and her kind.
All through this growing up, and the richly-drawn glimpses we have of South Africa and the wider world, there is an assured confidence to Bonert's narration, with an undercurrent of menace that is skilfully and affectingly wrought. Isaac settles uneasily into manhood with the possibility of war in Europe looming ever larger, as well as the quotidian brutality of the color-bar and the constant reminders of the precarious nature of life as a Jew. Gitelle still mourns the family she has left behind, never giving up her determination to bring them to safety. When, at great personal cost to herself and the possible exposure of a closely held secret, it seems she has found a way, Isaac makes a catastrophic decision for which one does not imagine there can be redemption.
This is a first novel, and so it is easy to forgive the occasional tremors in plotting that felt, towards the end of the book, too close to melodrama, and the inclusion of an epilogue that is out of voice and feels tacked on for poignant effect. The Lion Seeker is a captivating story, offering at times page-turning thrills and at others a painful meditation on destiny and volition. All too often debut novels stay too close to a writer's own life; it is a great gift to be able to mine family history and flex the imagination to create something that exudes such urgency and brilliance as this memorable book.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, some 70,000 Jewish live in South Africa. Most are descendants from Lithuanian immigrants. They fled Europe, hoping for a better life on a new continent. Kenneth Bonert's ancestors were among them. Bonert is the author of a new novel, "The Lion Seeker," about a Jewish boy growing up in Johannesburg. The book is set in the years leading up to World War II.
Here's editor and critic Ellah Allfrey with a review.
ELLAH ALLFREY: Isaac's father had made the journey to South Africa years before. But when the book begins, the ship carrying him and his mother, Gitelle, is just arriving. For now, Gitelle sets about ordering their lives. In one memorable scene she clears out the bladerfools and parasites - the friends she feels are sapping her husband's time and energy. She's forceful. But it's Isaac who drives the story.
He is not always a sympathetic character. He can be bull headed and violent. Spurred by his mother's blind faith, he leaves school and bets on several money-making schemes - some legal, many not.
Bonert does not shrink from the dark truth on which the opportunities of these immigrants are built. Fleeing Europe, Isaac and his family have found a new status no longer at the bottom of the pile. Life may be difficult but at least they're not black. Gitelle, with a sense of self-preservation, puts it to Isaac plainly: We are whites. We are Jews but we are whites here. If People see you with coloreds and hear you talk like that then they will think maybe we have coffee in our blood.
Thankfully, Bonert is too thoughtful a writer to allow Isaac an epiphany or a bleeding heart. Instead he opts for a more complicated truth: Isaac easily accepts the privileges his color allows him.
This is a first novel so it's easy to forgive the occasional tremors in plotting that felt, towards the end of the book, too close to melodrama. But "The Lion Seeker" is a captivating story, offering both page-turning thrills and a painful meditation on destiny and volition. It is a gifted writer who can mine history and flex the imagination in such a creative and memorable way.
CORNISH: Ellah Allfrey is the deputy chair of the Caine Prize for African writing. The book she reviewed was "The Lion Seeker" by Kenneth Bonert.
For more news on books and authors, check out NPR Books on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, that's @nprbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.