South African Jews Begin To Tell Tales

Literature Round-up

By Anderson Tepper

Published December 24, 2004, issue of December 24, 2004.
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A Time of Angels

By Patricia Schonstein

William Morrow, 224 pages, $24.95.


The Persistence of Memory

By Tony Eprile

W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pages, $24.95.


People Who Have Stolen From Me

By David Cohen

Picador, Trade paperback, 264 pages, $14.


In the decade since the end of apartheid, there’s been an outpouring of novels rendering the new South Africa — and the insidious legacies of the old — from a variety of perspectives. Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel, “Disgrace,” is perhaps his most affecting look at the schisms of a white South African conscience, while Zakes Mda has reclaimed the African past, from apocryphal Xhosa legend to 1970s anti-miscegenation laws, in novels like 2002’s “The Heart of Redness” and this year’s wonder, “The Madonna of Excelsior.” And that’s just for starters, for this is a movement of societal proportions: There are writers like Zoe Wicomb and Achmat Dangor, who explore the Indian and mixed-race experience; Marlene van Niekerk’s “Triomf,” a messy, bursting-at-the-seams novel of poor-white Afrikaaner life, and young writer Damon Galgut, heir to Coetzee’s spare but resonant style, whose “The Good Doctor” was short listed for the Booker Prize last year and whose earlier novel, “The Quarry,” will be released here this winter.

But if South Africa is lurching toward its multiracial destiny, in literature as well as in politics, still there are stories yet to be discovered fully. The full breadth of the South African Jewish saga, in particular, has only been hinted at up until now. Three books this past year by South African Jewish writers suggest a new day for these tales, as well. The recent novels of Patricia Schonstein and Tony Eprile follow several generations of Jewish immigrants into the contemporary era, while journalist David Cohen examines the new South Africa through the lens of a Jewish-owned furniture store in crime-ridden Johannesburg.

“A Time of Angels,” the second novel by Schonstein, is perhaps the lightest fare of the three, a sort of “Like Water for Chocolate” for the Italian-Jewish community of Cape Town. Although praised by Coetzee as a “tender, witty and engaging fable,” the book serves up elaborate portions of food, sex and magic realist sorcery, with only the lightest dash of history and Yiddishisms for seasoning. The tale of the rivalry between life-long friends Primo Verona, a professional clairvoyant, and chef and bon vivant Pasquale Benvenuto, “A Time for Angels” uses Cape Town’s bustling Long Street as a backdrop for its airy tale of erotic jealousy, redemption and bliss-inducing salamis. And yet, still there are moments of earthly poignancy, like when Primo and Pasquale’s fathers, refugees from war-torn Italy, question their own sense of belonging as their sons are sent to fight in Angola: “They anguished over whether they were true South Africans, whether the wars of their adoptive country should be theirs, as Italians, as Europeans who had already had their share of war. Could they answer for their theirs sons, each asked himself, who were born on this African soil?”

That question of identity reverberates through Tony Eprile’s eagerly awaited first novel, “The Persistence of Memory,” which just might prove to be the Jewish community’s masterpiece. The bittersweet story of Paul Sweetbread, who comes of age in the Jewish northern suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1970s and ’80s, the novel opens with a “Midnight’s Children”-like rush of language and grand metaphor. Although suffering through his own traumatic adolescence, Sweetbread embodies the pains of the country, as well (he is cursed with the “poisoned gift” of a perfect memory in a land of “national dysmnesia”). During apartheid’s brutal, dying days in the late 80s, he joins the South African Army and heads out to “Nam,” the covert war in Namibia that was the country’s own Vietnam. But his trauma only grows worse when he encounters the sadistic Afrikaaner Captain Lyddie. After years of projecting an air of liberal detachment, Sweetbread is forced to confront his divided conscience as a sheltered — and Jewish — white South African caught in a racial war. “But who is Paul Sweetbread?” he asks himself. “A nice Jewish Christian boy, a liberal soldier in the army, a lousy good South African, a waare Zuid Afrikaner Englishmen? Can such a person even exist?”

Not only does he exist, but Sweetbread also must bear witness to his personal journey in the book’s powerful final section. Testifying upfront of the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Lyddie’s war crimes, Sweetbread exorcises the demons of his haunted memory. “So, yes, mine is a bildungsroman after all,” he concludes. “It’s taken time to get here, but what is time when you think about it? For me it is ever-present…. We have all become experts on the past, here in the new South Africa.” A few pages later, his soul-searching broadens to encompass the transformed city of his childhood as well: “What will become of us all? It is not just me I worry about. Johannesburg seems to have become a city out of control. It is no longer the place I know, but one of those vast African cities, chaotic and inexplicable.”

The crippling problem of crime in post-apartheid South Africa — and in Johannesburg, in particular — is the subject of London-based journalist David Cohen’s “People Who Have Stolen From Me: Rough Justice in the New South Africa.” Cohen’s book zeroes in on Jules Street — “the longest straight street in Johannesburg” — and one store, Jules Street Furnishers, which has managed to survive on Jules Street for more than half a century. It’s a compelling, if perhaps limited, approach to the changing face of South Africa — not only has the street itself been remade many times over the decades, but the personal stories of the employees are worthy of several reality shows of their own. None, though, is more entertaining than that of Jack Rubin and Harry Sher, the store’s inseparable co-owners and the book’s larger-than-life tragicomic heroes. Descendants of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants from the turn of the century, Jack and Harry are old-school optimists, battling the nation’s brutal crime wave with corny Jewish wit intact.

Cohen follows the various intersecting sagas of the store through an eventful few months — midnight robberies, embezzlement, fraud, tearful recriminations and hand-wringing apologies. Harry’s brother, Ronny, who is also the downtown branch manager, is suspected of poaching from the company till; Jamal Suliman, another store manager, is arrested and prosecuted for his part in a scam. Then there are supporting characters like Obi and Veli, two former carjackers who troll the townships, repossessing furniture for the store. Traveling with them is an eye-opening experience for Cohen, too. “Located about twenty-five kilometers to the south of Johannesburg,” he writes, “this is a part of South Africa that few whites ever enter, a poverty-ridden landscape of seamless, depressing low-rise townships.… More than a million South Africans live here, but there is no money, no employment, no entertainment, no commercial enterprise.”

Later, between jobs, the two repo men turn reflective. “The new South Africa is the same as the old,” Obi complains. “We blacks are still expected to make a living out of nothing.” Their friend, an unemployed former African National Congress activist, chimes in: “The whites, they complain that people are stealing from them. But we had our lives stolen from us. We had our futures stolen from us. Apartheid was a crime for which no one has paid the price.” It’s a thorny question: What do crime and justice, truth and reconciliation, mean in the modern South Africa? It’s no surprise, then, that Jack and Harry turn to a local rabbi for guidance. After all, they can continue to invest in newfangled security equipment to fight the window smashers. But the truly vexing — and very biblical — question remains: How do you deal with a brother who is stealing from you? Yet another apt metaphor for the new South Africa.

Anderson Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair. He has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Nation and The Village Voice, among other publications.

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