(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.