The Lion Seeker, a great big richly-textured read that sprawls over decades and continents and cultures, is Toronto writer Kenneth Bonert's debut novel.
Isaac Helger, the young man at the centre of the story, is an Eastern European migrant growing up between world wars in the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Doornfontein. There, "it was as if a poor Lithuanian village had torn itself up from the cool forestlands of the north to root again in the baking dust of the deepest south." Indeed it has, and its Jewish residents are haunted by the violence they have fled and the threat of what is to come. Isaac wants to shake the past but first to know it.
Bonert told me about both the book and himself today, on the book's official publication date. We talked about getting the music of many languages just right — the book is alive with Yiddish, Afrikaans, African and British inflections — and about the Oscar Pistorius case, which has nothing to do with the book but, in a sense, has everything to do with South Africa:
We came as a family, my parents and I, from South Africa in the late 1980s, when things weren't looking that promising — it was a pressure cooker there and it looked like there would be a civil war at the least.
In South Africa the schooling system was very different then — uniforms and caning and old-school discipline — and it never really agreed with me. I was delighted to be in a more free society [with] a lot of new ideas, new friends, new ways of doing things.
When I finished high school I thought about studying literature but then settled on doing a more practical course in journalism. I had the idea that studying literature would be a way of spoiling the pleasure of reading. There was a lot of political reading of texts then and it just seemed joyless to me; it seemed like a chore.
It seemed like a nicer idea to get out there and write and interview people [while writing for the Pembroke Observer and Canadian Press.]
Whether the reporting experience helps — well, everything goes into the hopper. I think the writing of dialogue is a creative act of finding the kind of poetry within the prose to convey the flavour of a language as opposed to directly writing what people are saying.
One of the main aesthetic challenges with the book was to try to convey the authentic way people speak in South Africa, especially South African Jewish people, without becoming too esoteric for readers who have never heard that kind of language before, so you have to convey the meaning but retain the authenticity.
There were certain literary models I had in mind. Ernest Hemingway transliterated Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls in a really interesting way; although you're reading English, it has a very Spanish flavour to it. I thought I could do something similar without interrupting the flow of the text.
I don't use conventional quotation marks in the novel for a reason — it's not just an affectation. I wanted to try and show the way people slide between different languages in that community. The ease with which they do that is kind of an irony considering that it's such a segregated society. There is such an easy melding of words, as if language itself is something that doesn't put up with boundaries between people.
I can write anywhere quiet. I have a room and a poster of Muhammad Ali training that says: "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses." There's a lot of discipline involved in writing. You have to apply yourself; otherwise nothing gets done.
[A novel] evolves over time. You hear American generals say that no plan survives contact with the enemy. It's kind of like that. You might have an idea about what you want to do, but once you start working on it, it's a question of what's working on the page.
I wanted to write about my grandmother's shtetl in Lithuania and I wanted to write about a character, Isaac, that was sort of inspired by my uncle. I wrote an entire novel set in the shtetl and it didn't work. But what I learned from that experience was a different way of expressing Yiddish and I got the backstory for the characters [that would appear in The Lion Seeker.]
I started then to struggle with the idea of how to merge the shtetl into the South African story. The backstory is the main drive because it's being discovered by Isaac, who is finding out secrets from the past.
Isaac has been moulded by his mother, Gittele. She's all about going forward, going forward, and the tragic irony of the book is that in when he does become the person she wants him to become she comes to regret what she has done. We understand by the end of the book why she is as hard as she is.
It's a lifetime's ambition and work and a wonderful feeling to see The Lion Seeker out and in stores. It's kind of like your child — you wish the best for it. I've got a lot of the rough work done on another novel and I am polishing a collection of stories, some of which have been published before, and some that are new.
I find the Pistorius case really interesting. Someone said about The Lion Seeker, which I took as a great compliment, that it really felt like the reality of South Africa. Every place has its own emotional tone, every culture. South Africa's tone is a kind of manic-depressive one. You have these incredible moments of camaraderie and of the human spirit being expressed in amazing ways — very high highs. And you have terrible violence and economic deprivation and people seem to oscillate between these extremes a lot. Pistorius becomes a symbol of everything that is most noble and it ends in this gruesome way with his girlfriend shot to death in a toilet — the lowest low. It reflects something quintessential about South Africa.