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 3 of 3)

Bonert finally left South Africa for Toronto with his family in 1989. When F.W. De Klerk ordered the release of Mandela and lifted the ban on the African National Congress, Bonert was in Canada, watching on TV. After studying journalism at Ryerson University, he worked for Canadian newspapers such as the Pembroke Observer in Ontario. He toyed with writing novels and stories, which he describes as fantastical and Kafkaesque. But at first, he resisted writing about his own family history.

“I was reluctant to write about it for all these immigrant reasons,” he says. “The material seemed limited. I didn’t see the potential of it. The only stories that had been coming out of South Africa were about apartheid and rightly so. There was this sort of imperative to write about the political situation, but once apartheid had been dead for almost a quarter of a century, I thought maybe I could go back and write about Jewish experiences. I thought there was a way of writing about Jews in South Africa that had never really been done before and that electrified me.”

To write “The Lion Seeker,” Bonert found that he had to return to South Africa — not physically, since he hasn’t actually been back since the 1990s, but mentally. He remembered the dialects he heard growing up, the time he had spent with his uncles. (“They were working class guys who dropped out of school and they were tough characters. I was fascinated by them as a kid.”) He researched stories his grandmother had told him about living in the Lithuanian village of Dusat before she came to Johannesburg. He researched the grim fate of the people of Dusat during the time when between 95 to 98 percent of the Jewish population was killed.

The result was the first in what Bonert envisions as a series of novels. “I suddenly realized that I had this sense of history and place and characters and how they spoke and I started putting it into this South African immigrant novel,” Bonert says. “These family stories really provoked my imagination.”

The novel is done, and it’s a marvel. But now comes the harder part — getting people to read the thing. As is the case for just about all writers, it’s an uphill battle. When I ask Bonert’s publisher about how book sales are going in the United States, the response is, shall we say, circumspect. Nevertheless, as Bonert says, hope remains. And it does seem like people are beginning to come around to the book. Since its publication, “The Lion Seeker” has won the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction and the 2013 Edward Lewis Wallant Award. It was a finalist for the 2013 Governor General’s Award (Booker Prize-winning Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” took the prize). The paperback edition of ‘The Lion Seeker’ will be coming out in the states this fall. Reading Bonert and spending time with him, you get the feeling that he is one of those authors who you’re going to hear from again.

“The whole Jewish South African experience,” Bonert tells me near the end of our meal. “I’m not through exploring that yet.”

We didn’t have dessert. And I don’t remember if either of us drank any coffee.

Adam Langer is the arts & culture editor of the Forward.


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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • 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: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • 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.”
  • 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.