Are you a stupid or a clever?
Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger's mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mother's question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburg's poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?
Isaac's mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.
Meanwhile, South Africa's history, bound up with Europe's but inflected with its own accents - Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English - begins to unravel. Isaac's vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaac's fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mother's secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.
A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught - hearts open and wrecked - between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.
Gitelle: A Prologue
Whatever crouched beyond the lakes and forests of her green life was unseeable as night. She had never studied a map till it came time to leave forever and then her fingertips traced ceaselessly over what her mind could not picture. The mysteries beat in her like a second heart. The pinprick of her village lay closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia than she'd ever known; the whole country was but a slither in a howling world. There were salt oceans, desert kingdoms. She had the words and the colours on the map but nothing more.
When they stopped at the cemetery on the way out, the carriage driver Nachman said, A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem. Dead ones never come back from the grave. The old saying meant what's done is done but was turned upside down in his wry mouth: here it was the living who would never come back to these graves at the far end of Milner Gass, near the spring and Yoffe's mill, flashes of the lake silver ...
The author skillfully weaves threads of social issues throughout the plot, realistically conveying the political climate in pre-war South Africa, touching on the discrimination against blacks as well as the rising anti-Semitism of the day. I was particularly impressed by the complexity of Bonert's protagonist, Isaac. He isn't always very likeable; he's uneducated, he's unattractive, he makes bad choices, and he hurts people (both physically and emotionally). Sometimes, though, he shows himself to be caring and vulnerable, with a good heart buried in there somewhere.
(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).
Full Review (1226 words).
One of the subjects raised often throughout The Lion Seeker is the difficulty Jews faced leaving Europe as WWII ramped up. The voyage of the MS St. Louis, sometimes referred to as "The Voyage of the Damned," is referenced in passing.
After Kristallnacht – "The Night of Broken Glass" – on November 9-10, 1938, many Jews started taking steps to leave Germany for other, safer countries. One such attempt occurred when the Hamburg-based MS St. Louis set sail on May 13, 1939 with 937 mostly Jewish German refugees aboard, headed for sanctuary in Cuba.
The passengers celebrated when the boat left German waters. The captain, Gustav Schröder (1885-1959) insisted that the Jews be treated as any other tourists aboard would...
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