Kenneth Bonert’s ‘Lion Seeker’ Is Best New Novel You Haven’t Read

South African Epic Tells Tale of Jewish Johannesburg

Literary Lion: Bonert’s novel won the 2013 Jewish Book Award for best debut novel and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.
Martyna Starosta
Literary Lion: Bonert’s novel won the 2013 Jewish Book Award for best debut novel and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.

By Adam Langer

Published February 21, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

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 Of course not — a few scenes are a bit melodramatic; a conclusion that incorporates actual historical documents feels informative but not entirely necessary.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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.