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

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. Image by Martyna Starosta

I first heard of Kenneth Bonert’s “The Lion Seeker” maybe a year ago when I was having lunch with Harcourt Houghton Mifflin executive director of publicity Lori Glazer at some hoity-toity place in Union Square whose name I forget. Yes, this is a boring way to start a story, but bear with me because there’s a point to it — one about how books get promoted, published, and written about. Or not, as the case may be. Glazer, who once years ago unsuccessfully tried to help me get Philip Roth to blurb one of my novels, told me that “The Lion Seeker” — a 576-page epic set in South Africa between the first and second world wars — was my kind of book and that I would “fall in love with it.”

But to be totally honest here, “fall in love with” is a phrase editors hear every day from book publicists. And besides, Glazer had brought along a stack of promising-looking books including Jessica Soffer’s “Tomorrow, There Will Be Apricots” and A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Retrospective,” and I was most interested in trying to arrange an interview with Yehoshua and to press Glazer for gossip about Philip Roth (no luck there).

The rest of the titles she mentioned sort of flew by me. I’d never heard of Bonert — he was a South African-born, Toronto-based debut novelist and his book’s length and its cover (a light-blue lion against a dark blue, star-filled sky) suggested a sweeping historical and not-particularly-literary saga. Do editors make decisions based on their opinions of book covers? Uh, we try not to. Either way, I was skeptical.

Nevertheless, I did trust Glazer’s word. And I trusted the work of the novel’s editor, Jenna Johnson, who has edited, among other books, Tony D’Souza’s “Mule,” a tremendously underrated novel of drug-running and downward social mobility in the early 21st century. So, when I got back to my office, I cracked open “The Lion Seeker.” It didn’t hit me at first. It seemed dense, full of South African dialect; plus the office was loud that day, and I had trouble focusing. I tried again the next day, got distracted, put it down and resolved to find a reviewer for it.

Finding the right critic for a book is more art than science — it has a lot in common with playing matchmaker. I lined up a couple of writers who, I thought, would be interested in the book. One just sort of weighed the book in her hands, smirked, then put it down. Another writer grumbled, “Great, just what we need — another bildungsroman.” A third made a disparaging comparison to Australian novelist Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds.”

Only one choice remained — to try to read the book myself and give it a fair chance. Sometimes, you have to be in the right mood for a book. It took me at least five tries to realize that Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse” was one of the best books ever written. I gave up on William Faulkner in a high school English class and didn’t rediscover “Light in August” for a decade. With “The Lion Seeker,” it was much easier — it captivated me on the third try. Truly. I read it in the space of a week during my morning and evening rides on the subway and was taken by its breadth of detail, the richness of its language.

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.

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.

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