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As the novel described the travails of Isaac Helger, the rough-hewn son of a working-class Lithuanian Jewish family in the Doornfontein neighborhood of Johannesburg, I was blown away by the level of specificity of Bonert’s writing, the vividness with which he described Isaac’s misadventures in the auto industry, and his chilling encounters with anti-Semitism. I admired Bonert’s bravery in putting Isaac at the center of his novel, for he is a fairly unpleasant character whose later success is made possible by an act of betrayal.
I’d say that “The Lion Seeker” has the feel of one of E.L. Doctorow’s historical novels, but that would suggest I enjoy Doctorow’s novels more than I actually do. I could say that Bonert’s book called to mind “Call It Sleep,” although I’d feel more comfortable making the comparison if I had a better memory of Henry Roth’s novel. Whatever the comparison, “The Lion Seeker” seemed to me to be simply a stunning piece of work. A perfect novel? Of course not — a few scenes are a bit melodramatic; a conclusion that incorporates actual historical documents feels informative but not entirely necessary. Still, name me an epic novel that doesn’t have some flaws. If “The Lion Seeker” wasn’t the best Jewish novel I’d read in 2013, it was damn close.
But, a funny thing happened after I finished the book. It seemed almost too late to write about. There had been a couple of pretty good reviews in the United States, most notably on NPR, but that was about it. “The Lion Seeker” had already been out for a couple of months and when I mentioned the title to a few editors I know at major newspapers, they told me that they had already decided, for whatever reason, that they wouldn’t be covering it. Maybe they were thrown by the dialect. Or maybe they didn’t like the cover.
“It’s a little disappointing not to see any reviews in the mainstream press,” Bonert told me. “All the major newspapers in Canada reviewed it. And to be honest, I assumed that as a matter of course, there would be a couple of reviews. But hope remains.”
I meet Bonert for lunch at a pub in lower Manhattan near South Street Seaport — he goes for the steak sandwich; I go for the lobster BLT minus the B. The beverage of choice is water. Why the mention of food and drink? To indicate that neither of us keeps kosher? Possibly. But moreover to show why it’s sometimes tough to write compelling stories about authors. What do they do? They write, they talk, they have lunch, once in a while maybe they throw back a beer or two. At the end of the day, they’re rarely as compelling as the books they write, and if they are, then often their books are the problem.
Bonert, 41, is a tall, strapping dude with a soft-spoken demeanor, or at least that’s the persona he presents when he’s being interviewed and is watching his language. He comes off as astute, well-read, intellectually curious, and culturally aware — in conversation, he makes reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer, to his childhood fascination with the works of Jack London, to his friendship with Toronto-based writer David Bezmozgis, and to his memories of listening to Rodriguez, star of the documentary “Waiting For Sugar Man.” He seems like the sort of fellow you’d see by himself in the corner of a pub with a mug of good ale and a well-thumbed paperback. On our way to lunch, he showed me a copy of the book he was just reading — ”The Lying Days,” by Nadine Gordimer. He says that Gordimer and her fellow South African Nobel laureate Doris Lessing were part of the impetus for writing “The Lion Seeker.”
“Gordimer is Jewish and wasn’t raised in any particularly Jewish way. I think she was educated by nuns,” Bonert says. “And in this book, her character is a non-Jewish narrator who comments on the strange rituals of this Jewish community. There are Jewish characters in [Lessing’s] ‘Martha Quest.’ But the Jewishness of Johannesburg is something I hadn’t seen reflected in literature. When [Nelson] Mandela was arrested in 1961, all the whites with him were Jewish. All the radicals were Jews. I find that interesting and none of that had been dealt with directly.”
Bonert describes the area of Johannesburg where he grew up as isolated and suburban, a neighborhood of bungalow houses, gardens and family dogs. His father owned a furniture shop and his uncles, who helped inform the character of Isaac Helger worked in the auto business. “You lived inside a white bubble,” he says. “There was one state TV channel and we really didn’t get TV until the ’80s. All my friends were Jewish, I went to Jewish schools. I went to yeshiva on Sundays. There may have been one Reform congregation. Orthodox was all there was.”
“These were the days of apartheid,” Bonert says. “It was really bad. When I was growing up, Mandela’s name was synonymous with terror. We were scared of him. You couldn’t see any photos of him. A photo of him could have gotten you in jail. People had little doubt that the country was going to be subsumed in a bloody civil war and that the future looked bleak. My father had wanted to leave since 1976. He was not a political guy by any stretch but in his own way, he was virulently anti-nationalist. He hated the government, and he would rant about it and this sounds very minor but he was one of the few guys I know of who did the dishes. That was his way of expressing the fact that he didn’t want to participate in the system.