The recent history of South Africa is often reduced to the Boer Wars and the anti-apartheid struggle. Less well known is that the country has a sizable Jewish population, which also had to confront war and prejudice. Seeking to redress this gap is The Lion Seeker, the first novel by Kenneth Bonert, a South African born to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.
The novel's protagonist is Isaac, whose mother divides humanity into the Clevers and the Stupids. Clevers, if they require jobs, get comfy office gigs, while the Stupids are condemned to manual labor. Much of the novel is dedicated to Isaac's (mostly stupid) efforts to make a living in various trades and schemes, with the ultimate end of cleverly buying (not stupidly mortgaging) a home for his mother.
Meanwhile, Spain is falling to the Fascists, Hitler is seizing Czechoslovakia and the European Jews are facing increasingly dire assaults on their persons and property. Not that this is unprecedented to the South African Jews, as many of them had fled Russian pogroms in ages past.
The role that Britain's colonies played in the war effort is another underrepresented history. Thousands of South Africans participated. These include Isaac, who enlists when his moneymaking flounders. People often ask: Why didn't the Jews fight Hitler? Countless Jews did. In any case, Isaac barely survives the war and returns to resume his quest for home ownership. But he also learns that his mother has buried the history of Isaac's "cousin" Avrom, who turns out to be closer to Isaac than he thought.
As the subject matter demands, The Lion Seeker is an ambitious novel. Sometimes its ambition gets the better of it: Bonert's facility with and delight in language, including the incorporation of Afrikaans slang and what the characters call “Jewish,” can disrupt the storytelling. This becomes less so as the novel progresses—Bonert's Joycean aspirations take a back seat to his compelling historical tale, and the reader is less required to peer through thickets of linguistic virtuosity to see Isaac courting a girl or cuckolding an abusive colleague.
The novel ends somberly. Having become acquainted with the South African Jews, we are shown the appalling fate of those remaining in Lithuania. But the novel also ends with the more heartening creation of two much-awaited homes: Isaac's house in South Africa and the nascent state of Israel.