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He Does Not Die a Death of Shame a healing experience

  • GordinBookReview
Jack Hoffman’s He Does Not Die a Death of Shame is a coming-of-age story written by a South African-trained surgeon in his late 70s who’s been living in Scandinavia for close to four decades.
by JEREMY GORDIN | Dec 12, 2019

It is an “old-fashioned” book in terms of its approach (respectful of its characters, readers, and of history), its tone (serious), and its pace (unhurried). Yet, “old-fashioned” though it might be, one should not underestimate this book which, in its quiet and unassuming way, is exceptional and ambitious.

Here’s a very bald summary of the plot. The main protagonist is Zak Ginsberg, whom we first encounter as a young boy, and who grows up in the South Africa of the ‘50s and ‘60s, becoming a doctor, and then - because he is trying to help the son of the domestic servant who cared for him and whom he loved as a little boy - Zak is arrested and brutally tortured by the security branch.

So, the protagonist on whose “psychological and moral growth” we are focusing is Zak. But Hoffmann has much bigger fish - or rather many more fish - to fry. First, we come to understand Zak’s mental and ethical growth by being shown the family from whom he comes - a Lithuanian (Litvak) father who has gone to South Africa to look for employment, and the family from whom he in turn springs, who don’t escape the Holocaust that sweeps across the old country. 

In addition, Zak’s journey through life is later in the book mirrored by the “journey” of the previously mentioned son of Zak’s childhood nanny. Mpande Gumedi, the little boy with whom Zak played when he was a little boy, has, as you might have expected, joined the African National Congress underground, trained in the USSR, and returned to South Africa to plant bombs.

In short, the “person” on whose life’s journey we are focusing is more than one protagonist. Actually, this book contextualises, traces, and lays out the history and zeitgeist of a generation (or many of them, at any rate) - the children of immigrant Lithuanian Jews, born in South Africa in the 1940s, ‘50s and even ‘60s. At the same time, it does the same for a black generation (or many of them) also born in those years. And this contextualisation, at least in the case of Zak, also encompasses the Holocaust in Lithuania. Additionally, South Africa’s political history (do we “Seffricans” have any other?) is neatly interwoven throughout the narrative.  

Hoffmann delivers all this with intelligence and balance. To take just one example, Zak’s “ethical values”, which cause him to want to “assist” Mpande, and which end in the horror of Zak’s arrest and torture, aren’t the fruit of some corny Hollywood-type vision or decision. They are, given the boy and young man with whom we have become acquainted, and given the family from which he comes, entirely natural and convincing.

What’s most remarkable about this book is its texture and attention to detail. Early in the book, Zak has a “conversation” with an “imaginary friend” - himself, his alter ego, or whom-you-will - who helps him to sort out his thoughts and feelings, and who will of course re-appear towards the end of the book.

I note this because it struck me that, in writing this book, Hoffmann (now in his late-70s, as mentioned) must have had numerous, attentive conversations with his earlier self. For Hoffmann’s recreation of that era - what things were like, what you saw, how primary and high school “felt”, what living in South Africa in the ‘50s and ‘60s was like - is well-nigh faultless.

Here is Zak’s experience in cheder, the afternoon school for Jewish children where they’re taught Hebrew, religious knowledge, and prepared for their Barmitzvah.

“One boy mumbles, ‘Can I fxck your daughter?’

“’Woss?’ asks the hapless Mr Gruber (an Eastern European refugee who might well be a learned man but, to make a living, must teach little monsters at a cheder).

“‘Can I have a drink of water?’

“Howls of ruthless laughter ring out.

“I stare silently down at my desk during these exchanges because they are cruel, and because I think it strange to make fun of the man’s accent when most of our parents spoke English in the same way.” 

In short, He Does Not Die a Death of Shame appeals to me because this intricately-fashioned portrait of a milieu and history is my history. It’s familiar and heart-warming.

And yet, given that the main part of this book is about the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, into the ‘70s, I can’t help asking, what about the me who lives in South Africa now, or what about any other reader - me, she or he - who has been living here for the last 25 years or more and has witnessed the depressing failure of the great dream of the rainbow nation? 

So many of the noble elements of the struggle, those which propelled most of the people involved in it, have now been laid to waste or forgotten. This being the case, such motivations and “beliefs”, which are of course at the core of this book, feel distressingly quaint, like doilies from the 1960s.

In other words, this book could easily be disparaged by old (or even young) cynics as a “kumbaya book”, as “woke” and sentimental.

I hope not. He Does Not Die a Death of Shame is a book of meticulous texture - the reader feels its characters’ experience and the grain of their lives. Above all, this book is extraordinarily compassionate because it succeeds at entering in and showing everyone’s lives without being judgmental. 

This might sound sentimental - and doubtless it is - but reading this book was “gentling” for me, and it feels entirely apposite that it was written by a doctor - a healer.

‘He Does Not Die a Death of Shame’ is published by New Generation Publishing, 2019. It’s available on Amazon, including Kindle, and other internet vendors such as Book Depository and Exclusive, and on other ebook formats.

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