South African–born Canadian writer Bonert serves up a latter-day Exodus in this debut novel.
“A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem.” The dead never return from the grave. So says a hearse driver, knowingly, at the outset of Bonert’s saga, set in a “pinprick of [a] village” somewhere in Lithuania. The horizon expands almost incomprehensibly when a Jewish family makes its way from the shtetl to a rough but very different South African township, where immigrants from Eastern Europe and South Asia, in order to avoid persecution, become the persecutors themselves. Isaac Helger—each element of his name, each element of every name, has meaning—is a born troublemaker, always pushing and testing, always just shy of landing in the grave or in prison himself. The consummate outsider, he nonetheless has no difficulty lording it over the Zulu workers alongside whom he toils. “They a bunch of tsotsis and gunovim, man,” grumbles Isaac—which raises the modest caveat that it’s helpful to have some knowledge of Zulu, Afrikaans and Yiddish to appreciate a book that were it a film would come with subtitles. Bonert plays with conventions: Here the novel is a generational saga along the lines of Roots or, yes, a Uris novel, while there it assumes the contours of a cross-class love story, with a shiksa to die for adding to Isaac’s deep-in-the-bone angst. And still farther on, it becomes something of a moral fable as Isaac, ever more aware of what is happening to the Jewish people back in Europe, slowly awakens to the terrors of the apartheid system whose noose is tightening around him. He is also happily precise with a phrase, an image: “He prayed as he always did, concentrating on each word as if it were the smallest broken cog in a tiny wristwatch.”
Too long by a hundred pages, but a promising first step.