Book review: The ballad of the beloved country

This is the kind of book that could cause to you to smile or even laugh as you read it, but it might ultimately make you cry. Once you start reading it, though, you may not be able to put it down.

He does not die a death of shame (photo credit: Courtesy)
He does not die a death of shame
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the acknowledgment to his debut novel, He Does Not Die A Death of Shame, author Jack Hoffmann notes that “Oscar Wilde suffered from an earlier form of apartheid,” walking “with other souls in pain, within another ring.”
It is an apt introduction to this riveting book, which contains real historical figures in a tragic tale that follows the lives of two young men: Zacharia (Zak) Ginsberg, a Jewish surgeon of Lithuanian descent, and Mpande (Simon) Gumede, an ANC freedom fighter from Zululand, in apartheid South Africa. The title comes from Wilde’s famous poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Hoffmann calls it “a South African-Jewish chronicle spanning two generations from 1908 to 1972.”
Ginsberg is the son of Dan Ginsberg, a Jew who escaped Lithuania because of rising antisemitism, and Debora Becker, who suffers the abuse of her single mother and the prejudices of the local Jewish community. In the shadow of his parents’ sad history, Zak seeks solace from his Zulu nanny, Zanele, and befriends her son, Mpande.
“Their destinies become inexorably intertwined in their pursuit of what is right,” Hoffmann writes. “Zak studies the art of saving lives. Simon learns the craft of destroying lives. Both are drawn into the anti-apartheid struggle. The one acts because his ancestors were victims, the other because he himself is a victim.”
The book begins in Lithuania in the 1920s, where a new authoritarian regime bans Jews from studying at universities, prompting Dan Ginsberg to move to Strasbourg to study medicine. But as antisemitism explodes in Europe before the Holocaust, his father, Moshe, advises Dan to join his brother, Len, in South Africa.
With a heavy heart, he halts his medical studies and follows his father’s advice, never to see his family again. In a small package in his tallis bag he finds a King George V gold sovereign, wrapped in a message written by his father in Yiddish, Gedenk fun vu du kumen, Remember where you come from.
This sets the tone for the rest of the book’s plot, which makes for fascinating reading. Dan marries Debora and they raise their son, Zak, in Johannesburg, where he gradually learns what it is to be Jewish, white, English-speaking – and different – in apartheid South Africa.
Mpande has an apparently idyllic childhood in rustic Zululand, but after seeing how Zak’s family lives, he is pained by not having a father, and becomes increasingly angry about what it means to be a black, second-class citizen under the cruel apartheid system.
As Zak studies to become a surgeon, Mpande trains abroad to fight for the ANC’s military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe.
The two meet up again, as the drama unfolds when Mpande is sent back to South Africa to carry out an attack. But this review is not meant to be a spoiler. You should read the book for yourself!
Hoffmann, by the way, is a retired surgeon who grew up in South Africa, moved to Denmark with his wife, and they have a son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He also happens to be the brother of Alvin Hoffmann, former managing editor of The Jerusalem Report.
He notes that he has published more than 130 scientific articles in medical journals as well as several magazine articles, and he is a fine writer.
When Mpande recruits Zak to help him on a mission (I won’t reveal more), he asks how many white liberals who live in luxury but say they oppose apartheid actually do something. “How many are in fact ready to give up all this and really fight the regime? Risk arrest? Put their lives at risk? And those that do risk arrest, as you have, do they truly believe in our cause, or do they do so to make themselves feel like heroes, so that they boast to their friends, claim a free ticket when we one day win the war?”
When Zak is arrested by South Africa’s Special Branch (I won’t reveal why), he tells his sadistic interrogator, Captain Anton van Schalkwyk, that there is an alternative to evil.
“See the other man’s point of view, recognize his fears, his wants, his desires, his rightful place in the scheme of things,” he says. “Negotiation, mutual concessions. You mentioned that you know my namesake, Zacharia, the prophet, from the bible. Well, he has the answer for you: ‘Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit.’”
In his two protagonists, Hoffmann does justice both to the wise words of Zak’s grandfather, Moshe, “Remember where you come from,” and the passage from Wilde’s famous poem, which appears on his tombstone:
“And alien tears will fill for him,
    Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
    And outcasts always mourn.”
Be warned: This is the kind of book that could cause to you to smile or even laugh as you read it, but it might ultimately make you cry. Once you start reading it, though, you may not be able to put it down.