Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Lion Seeker

by Kenneth Bonert


In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II

Format: Hardcover
ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547898049
ISBN-10: 0547898045
Pages: 576
Publication Date: 10/15/2013
Carton Quantity: 12

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In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II

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.

Subjects

Jewish
Literary

Related Subjects

Fiction
Literature

Additional Assets

Kenneth Bonert

KENNETH BONERT's work has appeared in McSweeney's 25, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. A former journalist, his work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. Born in South Africa, he is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants. Read More


Other Books By The Author


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 through the dark trees.

   A closed sky kept spitting and everyone wore galoshes against the mud. The peeling birches creaked and dripped; candle flames twitched and fluttered. Her daughter, good girl, stood nicely beside her but Isaac on the other side kept squirming against her right hand bunched in his little jacket. This was a boy who hadn’t stopped jerking and kicking from the second he came out of her with thick hair gleaming like fresh-skinned carrots and his biting mouth screaming enough for twins. Almost five now, about to travel across the earth to meet the father he’d never seen.

   Gitelle made them look at and put pebbles on the gravestones of their grandmother and then all their great-grandparents. That was enough: another five centuries or more of buried Jewish bones spread away from them beneath the hissing branches. She adjusted her veil and turned back to face the living – her tutte Zalman Moskevitch, her sisters, the nieces and the husbands. Isaac wriggled free like a cat and ran off. She didn’t bother shouting: the boy needed a leash not more words, hoarse or otherwise. Some of his aunties caught him. Another two of them came up to her. Trudel-Sora hoisted Rively onto her hip and went away while Orli held out her arms. Youngest of the sisters, Orli was plump in the lips and hips and smoothly olive skinned; her black eyes, now liquidly gleaming, matched her thick long hair. She hugged Gitelle close, groaning, and said, I think you’re the first one ever who didn’t need a hanky on her leaving day.

   Are you surprised?

   Of course not.

   Gitelle nodded. How strange tears would be today, after everything. All the years spent gagging on the taste of her breath against the shame of the veil, her words dribbling from her like spatter from an overbubbling pot – such sorrows, encompassed by this place, should not include her leaving too. Never that.

   What are you thinking of?

   The future, said Gitelle. The living. My husband. What else is there to think of?

   Orli smiled: her teeth unpeeled were white as river stones and brilliant in her olive face. Sister, not everyone’s as strong as a tree stump.

   Is that what I’m supposed to be now?

   It’s what you always have.

   She had threaded her warm soft arm through Gitelle’s and pulled it close as they walked back though the gravestones. A sodden squirrel stood up to stare at them, quivering. Gitelle said: Listen. If I can do this so can you. Don’t waste time. Be brave. Don’t ever stop trying. I was twenty-seven before I met my Abel. They said with the way I am such a thing could never happen. And after we had Rively, you think he wanted to go? Men are lazy as stones. I had to nag so much I nearly twisted my own head into craziness – borrow the money, get moving, wake up. And how many years now it’s taken him, drip drip drip, to send back just enough for our tickets . . . But see, here I am, I don’t complain. Today it’s my turn, my leaving day. You understand what I’m telling you, Orli? Remember this day. Don’t ever give in. Don’t ever go slack. Your leaving day will come sooner than you think. All of yours will. It’s the only way we’ll ever see each other again, and we will. We have to.

   Orli was drying her cheeks with her free hand. But it was always fated, she said. You and Abel. Like everything.

   Gitelle snorted, rippling the line of the veil.

   What? There is fate. You two prove it.

   Prove what exactly?

   How The Name makes His perfect matches for us, in every generation of souls. A heart for a heart, even a wound for a wound. Every shoe must have its foot.

   Gitelle was silent, felt her sister’s eyes on her face.

   Forgive me, said Orli. Foot and shoe. I didn’t mean—

   Ah Orli, said Gitelle, lisping into the cloth. You think that’s what bothers me? My dear sister, you need to forget all that romantic trash if you’re ever going to grow up. Now’s the time to start.

   Outside the cemetery the horse cropped at wet weeds with a stretched neck; Nachman had his collar up and his chin on his chest. There was a wait to find Isaac who’d gotten loose again and was giggling somewhere off in the lindens on the opposite side. First would come the station at Obeliai, then a train to Libau on the coast. She had packed goose feather pillows for the freighter’s hard benches and plenty of lemons because lemons are the cure for seasickness: advice from the ones who’d gone before. Africa. She wondered what an ocean will be.

 

In Southampton on England’s coast they boarded a Union Castle liner with a lavender hull and two fat smokestacks. It took twenty days to reach the bottom tip of the pistol-shaped African continent and on every one of them Isaac found ways to raid the upper decks of first class, returning to steerage with pockets stuffed with glazed tarts and fresh cheeses and Swiss chocolate, with strange and impossibly sweet fruits Gitelle had never seen before. When he wasn’t raiding he fought other boys or kicked the shins of the duty officers. His masterpiece was starting a fire in a life raft with a flare gun. The crew called him Devil Boy and the captain almost had him confined. They didn’t understand it was only that he was born with a little more kaych in him than others, a little extra life energy bubbling and frothing inside like hot milk to get out. When she wiped his face in bed every night with a damp cloth she got him to keep still by promising him the freckles were coming off, and every morning he’d run excited to the mirror to verify her claims.

   Cape Town was on a bay raked by salt winds, its streets laced over the roots of a flathead mountain. Colours burned the air: blood flowers, thorny eruptions of vermilion, limeyellow smears on the rocks like veins of fresh paint. The red sun had sandpaper beams. She saw human beings burned the colour of coal or darkbrewed tea or cured leather; she smelled their alien sweat and their tangy cooking, heard the mad bibbering of their manifold tongues. A strange music that made her heart sag in the fear of this shattering place. But later she saw pretty whitewashed houses in a row near the waterfront, with palm trees in tranquil garden squares, and she dared hope that Abel had secured them similar lodgings.

   Johannesburg was two ho...

"What a rare and splendid achievement this novel is—emotionally gripping, intellectually challenging, deftly plotted, skillfully composed, and vibrantly alive with the images and sounds and textures and human flurry of another time and place. I was dazzled. And I was moved."
—Tim O’Brien

"[Isaac's] is a story of fighting and deciding what's worth fighting for, of cultivating a strength that doesn't erase empathy. . . The pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film."
Publishers Weekly

"[The Lion Seeker] will grab readers everywhere with the story of the struggling refugees in a new country, the horror they escaped from, and the guilt about those left behind, with secrets not revealed until the very end. . . The immigrant family struggle comes across as universal, whether concerning radicals or the ultra-Orthodox. . . A great choice for book-group discussion."
Booklist

"South African-born Canadian writer Bonert serves up a latter-day Exodus in this debut novel."
Kirkus Reviews

"Kenneth Bonert’s raw and ambitious novel of working-class Jewish life in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s...[an] ambitious and unruly novel."
Moment Magazine

"Here is the South African novel I've been waiting for. Kenneth Bonert tells it true, not safe. His protagonist is worthy of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the South Africa he gives us vivid, raw, dangerous, shot through with moral complexity."
—Lynn Freed, author of House of Women and The Servants' Quarters

"The Lion Seeker is a powerful and thoroughly engrossing novel, grand in scope, richly imagined, full of dramatic incident, and crafted in a prose that is by turns roughhewn and lyrical. To read it is to be reminded how great a great novel can be."
—David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World and Natasha: And Other Stories

"A remarkably assured debut, The Lion Seeker is a riveting, lyrical, and profound journey towards the intersection of private lives and public destinies. Kenneth Bonert has all the makings of a major novelist."
—Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times

"The Lion Seeker is no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle-fight raw. A historical novel that feels desperately current; a Rosenburg and Juliet love story shorn of all sentiment; a stock-taking of human brutality and its flip side, our capacity to reach beyond our limitations and be better, all rendered in prose so expert, so fine honed that it belies the adjective ‘debut.’ It joins classics like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart in the canon, and renders the South African experience universal. A first-round knock-out for Kenneth Bonert."
—Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa

"This powerful novel begins with a mystery that propels its characters through their difficult lives in prewar South Africa and haunts their actions until a dramatic and searing climax based on the Holocaust in Lithuania. The Lion Seeker is vivid and illuminating, astonishing in its range and toughness, and simultaneously an expression of love and regret for all that has been lost."
—Antanas Sileika, author of Underground and Woman in Bronze and Director of the Humber School for Writers

Praise from abroad for The Lion Seeker:

"An emotional tour de force that plumbs the depths of human hope, fear, guilt, and rage, and bears all the hallmarks of a masterwork."
Ballast (Canada)

"A titanic novel. . . An epic, a vast story about a rarefied subject: the community of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated to South Africa before World War II. . . Mazel tov, Kenneth Bonert, you have written a blockbuster of a book."
Toronto Star (Canada)

"Bonert's prose is sharp and masterful, clipping along at a breathless pace while still managing to wow us with imagery, clever turns of phrase and believable dialogue peppered with several languages."
Globe and Mail (Canada)

"The Lion Seeker is astonishingly mature, admirably incautious. It moves with the sleight-of-hand of the born artist, ramping up for naked tugs at the heart. . . It's visually and thematically sweeping, rich with diverse personalities, packed with tender waves and roiling crests of love, loss, hope, hatred. It casts its bit players (even a final-act dog) as deftly as its stars. . . This novel, quite apart from what it might become, remains completely and thrillingly itself."
National Post (Canada)

"If not for the setting-South Africa in the 1930s and '40s-the novel's hapless protagonist could have been plucked from the doom-laden pages of Thomas Hardy. . . The Lion Seeker, like its 19th-century literary forebears, is larded with enough plot twists, reversals of fortune, and revelations of family secrets to keep many readers engrossed."
Quill & Quire (Canada)

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