Kenneth Bonert’s The Mandela Plot is a propulsive literary thriller set in late 80’s Johannesburg, when eighteen year-old Martin Helger’s life is upended upon the arrival of Annie, an intriguing American college student. Annie quickly proves to have a bevy of secrets, and Martin is soon exposed to a world far different than his sheltered working class background. As Martin finds himself in the thick of the upheaval in South Africa’s government, he also has to reckon with recently unburied secrets that have sent shockwaves through his family, second-generation Lithuanian Jews who have made a life in Johannesburg. Bonert’s debut novel, The Lion Seeker, won both the National Jewish Book Award and the Canadian Jewish Book Award. The Mandela Plot seems poised to duplicate that critical success, already receiving positive reviews. Booklist praised it as “fiction that illuminates shifting allegiances and power struggles during a dark time and place in recent history. A riveting thriller with a solid historical base.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Bonert via telephone on May 21st, 2018.
The book was described by Kirkus as “Chaim Potok meets Leon Uris.” What writers were influential to you growing up in South Africa?
I like writers who combine storytelling with a deeper take on the material. If you go back to Dostoevsky and Dickens, that’s where I really started my reading. Then I was really attracted to American fiction, writers like Robert Stone and Don DeLillo. For South African fiction, I like Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing.
For this book, because it’s a voice novel, I was really influenced by writers who use that first person adolescent voice so well, like JD Salinger and Mark Twain. I was using that vernacular adolescent voice to put perspective on the story.
The book is told from the point of view of Martin Helger, who’s this really sweet, quirky seventeen year-old thrust into this situation where he’s way over his head. What made him the ideal storyteller for your book?
I tried a number of different approaches, because there’s a lot of material that I wanted to cover with this book. There are my own memories of growing up and living through that era in the 80s in Johannesburg, and then there was also the fascinating stuff that was going around in South Africa, like the wars being fought around the border. It was a bit of a challenge to come up with a storytelling method that I felt could present all that material in an interesting way and tie it all together. It was a process of experimentation, and eventually I happened across this first person present singular voice of Martin. I really liked how it looked on the page, how it sounded. One of the objectives of this book—and I did the same with my previous book, it’s sort of a project of mine—was to try to capture the South African vernacular that I grew up with on the page. It’s something that I hadn’t seen represented in literature before. I just thought the language is so interesting and vibrant, so it became a voice novel. Martin has, as you say, that innocent take on very serious material. It’s also a way for the reader to come at material that might be unfamiliar to them, through adolescent eyes, because a young person is just learning about the world.
He was such a great entry point for me as a North American, not being as familiar with the ins and outs of South Africa at that time.
That’s part of it, but also, as a writer you experiment with different methods and things either work or they don’t. I had written other drafts using different methods to tell the story and wasn’t happy with how they turned out. My first book was written in more of a modernist poetic prose. It was cooler and more distant to the material and I just thought memories didn’t really come alive on the page without that voice. I think that’s always the most important part of writing fiction, the viewpoint and the voice and the language, to make the story come alive.
The book immerses you into the world of 1989 South Africa, taking you from the suburbs of Johannesburg to townships to the covert fight to bring down the National Party. This might be an ignorant question, considering you grew up in South Africa, but what kind of research did you do for the novel?
I did a fair amount of non-fiction reading about the political backdrop. Unlike my first book, it wasn’t a novel that required as much imagination, because I remembered it quite vividly and I wanted to capture that feeling that white South Africa had at the time. In a way, Martin becomes almost a symbolic figure because he lives inside this fantasy world inside a walled garden at the beginning of the novel, and then he gradually comes to learn about the world outside through the arrival of an American visitor. In the same way our whole society was walled off from the rest of the world. It took influences from the outside seeping in to create a change in the consciousness. What’s important to me is to capture the right emotion and the right tone rather than the facts of exactly what happened, but there is quite a lot of politics. Politics is something we thought a lot about then and discussed a lot, so that’s naturally part of the novel. So there was some non-fiction reading but this book was more autobiographical than my first one so it was more remembering and meditating on the times.
Do you feel you put more of yourself into this novel than your first book?
This book is made out of my direct memories, where the first book was about the generation before Martin’s. It’s about the first generation of Jewish people who emigrated to South Africa from Lithuania, why they did that, and what their lives were like. That book was based on family stories and historical research, but this one came out of my own direct experiences.
Martin finds himself facing off against a vicious police officer, Captain Oberholzer. Can you talk about what went into creating the villain of your story, who is somehow completely terrifying but also very human?
Oberholzer is the son of a character who appears in my first novel. One of the themes of the book is how certain situations recur in different generations, we’re somehow not able to escape the recurring drama whether it’s in a family or whether it’s in the history of a country. In this case Oberholzer’s almost a symbol of anti-Semitism in a way because his father had a conflict with Martin’s father, although reading this book you wouldn’t know the details of that, but it still informed the writing.
But he’s also an interesting character in his own right, because he symbolizes when you divorce everything else from the idea of being successful above all else, then you lose sight of the morality attached to that. That’s also another theme in the book, where Martin’s older brother embodies all these manly virtues, like courage and strength, but in the end they don’t really lead to a good place. Maybe that’s something that came out of the writing, this idea that you can’t really divorce the idea of succeeding at something from the rest of life, or from other ethical implications, without that having an impact.
Martin seems to be the one character who does confront the moral and ethical challenges, and is able to breakthrough to have a more comprehensive view.
He does, but he’s also really confused and battered by the events and the characters he comes across. All these characters have really strong viewpoints and they’re so diametrically opposed, but they’re so convincing in their own way. Each character is so forceful. He drifts his way through the complexity, which I think reflects adolescence in a way, that age when a person is unable to select the crystallized adult personality that they think will best serve them in life. They haven’t quite formed their personality yet.
Martin’s certainly presented a lot of different pathways, whether it’s his father who has this strong Jewish identity, or Annie who wants him to open his eyes to the horrors of his country, or even Captain Oberholzer.
It’s complicated for him, and I think that’s because I don’t have a simple view. I don’t think a novel’s job is to dictate what the correct moral stance to take is, it’s just a question of showing what is and opening up all those questions and allowing the character to struggle through them.
Since there is that link between your first two novels, do you have a sense that future books will be similarly interconnected?
I really love the creation of a fictive world, the idea that you use the same backdrop and the same family to tell the stories. I find as a reader, it’s really satisfying to make those connections, even if they’re not that obvious at first, so there’s something about having an interconnected body of work that’s really appealing.
In a way these two books tell a complete story. The first one is about the Jews who left Lithuania and came to South Africa—most South African Jews have Lithuanian roots. It’s an emigration story, and this book is sort of an emigration story again. It’s sort of a microcosm of what has happened to the Jewish community in South Africa, which is that it’s shrunk. So there’s emigration, in this case to the States, other people have emigrated to Australia or Canada. I originally thought a trilogy would work, but I’m not sure, because there’s no further emigration. It doesn’t really fit in with the theme, but it’s a possibility.
It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the lives of South African Jews, which was a community I didn’t know anything about.
The first book had different perspectives and took a wider look at the whole question of Jews in South Africa, and this book was more intensely focused on one character. It’s also a book about what it’s like to live through the collapse of a society, where everyone around you has these certainties, and then one day you’re told that was all wrong. It’s a very strange thing to live through. Often people who have been through revolutions, whether it’s the fall of the Soviet Union or the collapse of apartheid, I think they have a certain mistrust of reality. It gives you a strange feeling of the unreliability of reality. You become less trusting of what people are saying about the society that you live in.
And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?
Libraries have been so important to me. Growing up in South Africa, they were sanctuaries. They were quiet, wonderful places where I could discover all these different voices that were there on the shelf. It’s an interesting contrast—the quiet of the library and the excitement of the language. I still love to go to the library. Sometimes I’ll just go wander the stacks and pull out books in a random fashion. There’s something to doing that—pulling actual books out of actual shelves—that really enhances the whole process of discovery. You cannot emulate that with the internet. I love libraries and I hope they’ll continue to endure in the digital age.
Tags: Kenneth Bonert