The Lion Seeker (South Africa)

book coverby Kenneth Bonnert

When a family of Lithuanian Jews travels to Johannesburg before the second World War, they are delighted to find that suddenly, they’re white people. But alas, it isn’t as easy to escape their past as the mother was hoping. And she is so afraid to slipping back down the class ladder that she is cruel to her little boy, who wants to play with the black children, and even to puppies. And racist.

The Stupids and the Clevers

It’s no surprise when Isaac grows into a surly, suspicious teen who wants badly to have sex with a white, upper-class South African girl from a prestigious neighborhood–and is willing to pretend to any liberal views in order to do so.

The Palazzo Stein, one of South Africa's most famous and expensive mansions
The Palazzo Stein, one of South Africa’s most famous and expensive mansions

The mystery of what happened to Gitelle back in Lithuania–what happened to the whole village–is part of the intrigue of the book, along with what will happen to the family she has left there, as Hitler’s shadow falls across Europe. The future, though, rests with Isaac and his sister. Can they overcome their personal family history, and just history in general?

Wealth causes poverty. Extreme wealth causes extreme poverty.
Wealth causes poverty. Extreme wealth causes extreme poverty.

The book has a strong sense of place: I enjoyed Bonnart’s use of dialogue–it gave me a real sense of listening to these people. And of course, Yiddish is fun for someone who already speaks German. The classism inherent in Isaac’s girlfriend’s parents is just stunning–the disparity between their mansion, where they won’t let the movers come down the main staircase, and the garage where the movers work, for example.

Traditional south african house
Traditional South African dwelling

The book also makes clear the historical phenomenon of lateral oppression–when a people who have suffered racism and oppression in turn oppress others. The Jewish people in this book have not a lot of sympathy for the oppressed blacks in South Africa, and that, it is clear, comes from their own fear and their own past.

A nuanced and important work of historical fiction, which I understand is based on the author’s own coming-of-age.

Read a little more about South Africa in my blog on the Comoros Islands.


My Uncle Napoleon (Iran)

book coverby Iraj Pezeshkzad

This is not Betty Mahmoody’s Iran. These are people I could live among; when the book ended I felt like my year as an exchange student had sadly come to a close. They drink. They sleep around. They have insane relatives and do weird, chaotic things. They’re greedy. They’re noble. They’re human. Yes, Iranians! They don’t spend every moment obsessing about religion…the Shah and the Ayatollah rarely figure in their lives. Although the English and their machinations do.

My Political Awakening

I was a sheltered child. The very first time politics intruded on my life was one fateful day in 1978. I was 10 years old. I was making lunch with my dad in our kitchen in small, safe, remote McCall Idaho, when Dad suddenly shushed me. He never did that. I knew something big was happening. He turned up the radio that was sitting on our faux marble sideboard. The U.S. Embassy had been attacked in Tehran. There were American hostages. People were being blindfolded and getting their heads chopped off. Some scary bearded man in a big black robe was calling my country “the Great Satan.” And of course, I didn’t know why.


Make sure you read the introduction and prologue to this novel so you understand why, historically, Iranians would distrust the British, the Russians, and the Americans. (The characters’ dislike for Indians and Armenians isn’t explained, but seems to be more racial/ethnic than colonization–resources stealing-related.)

The Iranians portrayed in the book have more than a little Latin sensibility to them: screaming family fights involving people with pellet guns, cleavers, and legs of mutton occur with amusing regularity. They reminded me of someone…perhaps Italian. Perhaps Greek. Perhaps the neighbors down the street.

cartoon of dear uncleDear Uncle Napoleon, with his obsessive paranoia about “the English” and what they will do to him, for his imaginary military exploits, is like an Iranian Don Quixote. The Iranian flavor is unmistakable, however: angry characters have eyes “like bowls of blood”. The servant speaks with a lower-class accent and constantly says, “Well, m’dear, why should I lie? To the grave it’s ah…ah…(holds up four fingers)”. Dear Uncle Napoleon counts his Muslim prayer beads when upset, and the narrator’s father’s pharmacy is put out of business when the preacher claims from the pulpit that their medicines are made with alcohol.

The farce revolves around the unnamed teen narrator’s passion for his cousin Layli (“the marriage of first cousins is made in heaven”) and to stop her marrying his other, and older, cousin Puri, he kicks him so hard that he damages one of his…er…you know. Thanks to the constant joking of the narrator’s sex-obsessed Uncle Asadollah Mirza, I will never again be able to hear the words “San Francisco” or “Los Angeles” without giggling.

Let the Narrow Mindsets Tremble

In the beginning of the novel, the narrator is asking  himself if he is in love, and how he would know. What is love, he asks himself? His resources are extremely limited, but he has heard of the great love story of Layla and Majnun–and I wouldn’t have gotten the reference had I not read Ali and Nino, set in Baku, Azerbaiijan which borders Iran.

If you want to get a good look at life in Tehran in the 1940s, this book is an extremely enjoyable way to go about it. In the preface to my edition, Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran–yes, My Uncle Napoleon is also banned) speaks of the “urgent need to form a conspiracy of sorts among the lovers of books in England and America, Iran, and the world over. Let the narrow mindsets tremble and fear at the possibilities of such a movement.”

Further Reading

* Honeymoon in Purdah: While I would have appreciated knowing before the second half of the book what the setup was, this is a great look at a Canadian journalist’s journey through Iran. Mostly what it impressed upon me was that the Iranian people don’t hate Americans–our governments just don’t get along. The people themselves were just people…decent and hospitable for the most part, despite that I don’t like their customs regarding women. (Wearing pretends to be married to her gay roommate in order to travel safely through the country, and this creates a bit of cognitive dissonance in the first half of the book, since she seems strangely flat and unemotional about her new “husband”.)

* Persepolis: Graphic novel by Iranian-born Marjane Satropi, who now lives in France…will remove the last of your preconceptions about Iran and Iranian people. Angsty and coming-of-age.