October 25, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Kenneth Bonert's The Lion Seeker is an ambitious debut novel, a literary page-turner that follows a family of Lithuanian Jews in South Africa between the 20th century's world wars.
Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.
More than one reviewer has mentioned that my novel The Lion Seeker would make a fine movie. I confess to taking this as the best of compliments, for it means the book has succeeded in implanting living images into their minds' eyes, means the story has swept them up along with it, the way an absorbing film can draw its audience close inside those dreamy flickering arms of light.
The book is the story of shtetl Jews landing in Africa, as my own forebears did. Yiddish meets Afrikaans, wintry northern forests give way to the dry expanse of the veld, with its thorn bushes and stalking lions. At the centre is a young man who has hair the colour of hot coals, who comes of age in a fierce time, in a harsh new land of gold mines and race wars. He loves. He fights. He rises and falls and claws his way up again.
If The Lion Seeker is to be a great film, as kindly-disposed critics would sometimes wish it (the ancient Yiddish appeal deserves to be injected here: From their lips to God's ear . . .), then it must have a great soundtrack. The novel is full of voices in flat-vowelled South African slang, in lilting Yiddish, in guttural Afrikaans and tongue-clicking Zulu, and this merry mixture must, I think, have a springboard of music to bounce or bear it from scene to scene. Let us begin, then, with:
Zeni Me, Mamo by The Newark Balkan Girls Chorus
This is a track borrowed from another film which I've admired, In The Bedroom, a 2001 production starring Marisa Tomei and Sissy Spacek. It's a Bulgarian folk song – this female choir makes it into a holy blast of gorgeous harmonies that will smash your heart into a million weeping pieces if you have one.
I think this haunting beauty would be perfect for the opening of my novel which was, metaphorically, shot in a graveyard in a small village in north-eastern Lithuania, where Jewish sisters gather to lament not a death but the emigration of one of their own, their dear sister Gitelle, mother of the novel's protagonist, Isaac Helger. She will soon travel to the "pistol-shaped African continent" to arrive at a bay "raked by salt winds" where "colours burned the air: blood flowers, thorny eruptions of vermilion." There is a hushed and sepulchral power to "Zeni Me, Mamo" that I think would well suit the darkness of a graveyard in a northern forest on a rainy day, where the pale birch trees hiss and creek, and the wet wind twitches at candle flames behind cupping hands made orange from within. The choir's voices could then extend over the ocean, the camera's eye rushing from the passenger ship out over the waves to the shattering mystery of the new shore on the far horizon.
Now let us jump ahead some pages and years, some yet unmade frames on a movie reel. Cue:
The Dance of Fire by Giora Feidman
In the graveyard scene, Isaac Helger was a child of almost five, accompanying his mother; now he has grown into a teenage hustler on the make, who has teamed up with the corpulent Hugo Bleznik, the world's greatest salesman, or one of them, and embarked on a mission to sell a product called Miracle Glow to the Afrikaner farmers of the Transvaal heartland.
The tone here is comic and roguish. I see Hugo's big black 1932 Opel raising up flags of red dust on country lanes, I see him doffing his hat to leather-tough Boers on tin-roofed porches and in fields of mielie stalks, I see him demonstrating his product and grinning and chatting ceaselessly while Isaac looks on, trying to learn the art of the sweet talk.
For those who don't know, Giora Feidman is probably the greatest living klezmer artist of the clarinet. In this track he pipes and coughs mischievous notes of jollity over an Arabic-scented flowerbed of jaunty rhythms. It's joyful and crafty music with a bittersweet residue that exactly suits what the two of them are up to on their miracle-selling mission.
Other kinds of work that Isaac takes on, bring him into close contact with African men for the first time, overseeing their manual labour in a role typical of white privilege in that era. Watching them work, the novel tells us, "he feels a secret pulse of jealousy; his blood feels restless, his bones feel trapped. To them belongs the dignity of expressing their strength as men." And here a song by a famed South African band of the 1980s came to mind . . .
Sky People, by Juluka
This was a band formed by Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. Clegg is white and Jewish, and so it seems fitting to include him in the soundtrack for this novel. Yet there is little that is overtly Jewish about his music (some have labelled him "The White Zulu"). I think the harmonies of this track are just as poignant as those of the first track, but with a driving masculine power that suits images of men at work, lifting and carrying and sweating (the band's name is the Zulu word for sweat). I remember attending anti-apartheid concerts by Juluka when I was a teenager and those nights of high emotion still ring through my memories more clearly than a thousand duller days in between.
We've had music of Eastern Europe, we've had Jewish music, had African rhythms, now it's time to set the film in its time and not merely place – this is a story that unfolds mostly in the last years of the 1930s.
Happy Days are Here Again, by Ben Selvin & His Orchestra
This mostly instrumental version dates from 1930, with it brassy period-piece piping (as if played from the bottom of a zinc-lined well), is still a familiar tune and therefore able to cast a nice irony to shadow Isaac around the inner city of Johannesburg in his mostly unhappy struggles.
In those struggles, Isaac's first love should be included – falling for an impossible girl from a wealthy Parktown family, rich folks Isaac would no doubt label as "yokish," "larney" and "pukka-pukka."
Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two), by Dmitri Shostakovich
This version of what would later become a famous jazz standard was orchestrated by the great composer in 1927. As an elegant instrumental backing it might add a pleasant touch to Isaac's scenes of romantic yearning and courtship, putting one in mind of sipping from fine china with one pinky raised. Cheek to cheek. ". . . the world of high castles in the dreamish air," as it all strikes Isaac in the novel.
But perhaps no jazz track better captures the ruthless spirit of the age or of Isaac Helger's ambition, than the following, derived originally from Bertoldt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. Though this version was recorded too late to be unanachronistic (in 1956), it would fit in very well with a jazz club scene where Isaac exacts a most unfortunate revenge on a young man who makes the mistake of mocking him.
Mack The Knife, by Louis Armstrong
Like everyone, Isaac is caught up in the Second World War and its aftermath. There is a barroom moment towards the end of the novel where drunkard veterans sing a sad Afrikaner folk song. It's quite a pretty old melody and it's called:
My Sarie Marie, by various
Some of its lyrics appear in the novel.
The story closes where it began, with the focus on the tiny village left behind. The fate of the Jews who never made it out of Lithuania in time is unspeakable. Silence is the only possible non-music permitted here. But perhaps in the slow fall toward this final revelation, some last swelling of sacred beauty, akin to the woman's choir at the start, might be apt.
Larcrimosa, from the Requiem Mass by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
This is the most beautiful music I think I've ever heard, and some of the saddest. There is some controversy about how this composition was completed, since Mozart died before finishing. I see him encased in the cold sweat of his final fever, mouthing the notes with numb lips, his eyes staring past the ceiling and into things that no living being is supposed to understand, his ears already full of the afterlife, the high sweet music of the heavenly orbs.
Kenneth Bonert and The Lion Seeker links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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