|CANADIAN JEWISH NEWS
South African apartheid society from a Jewish vantage point
By BILL GLADSTONE, Special to The CJN
Thursday, 17 September 2009
Libka Hoffman was born in Cape Town, South Africa, soon after her Jewish
parents emigrated there from Lithuania about 1930. But Libka - the protagonist
of In a Pale Blue Light, an extraordinary first novel by Toronto writer Lily Poritz
Miller - is radically at odds with her homeland.
As she enters her teenage years in the 1940s, Libka realizes she cannot live in a
country in which black people are treated as inferiors and interracial
fraternization is a strong social taboo. Her innocent friendships mark her as a
In a Pale Blue Light opens a rare window onto life in South Africa's apartheid
society from a Jewish vantage point. Although the country offers the Hoffmans a
safe haven from the Nazis and a chance to thrive in business, it is still a
poisonous and dangerous place.
As the Hoffmans anxiously await letters from their relatives who didn't get out of
Europe in time, some Afrikaaners threaten them and break their windows with
stones. Without quite realizing it, the family has jumped from a fire into a frying
pan, so to speak, finding themselves a vulnerable and barely tolerated minority
in a country sizzling with anti-Semitic and xenophobic resentments.
Plunged into mourning by the death of her father, Libka is ridiculed by her
schoolmates for performing tasks like scrubbing floors, considered menial for
whites, and for her attachment to the family's beloved black servant, Maputo.
Daily cloistering herself into a lavatory cubicle over the school lunch hour only
adds to her reputation as a weird loner whose values bear close scrutiny.
A series of dark twists reveals the prejudiced and paranoid flavour of South
African society. The family discharges Maputo under suspicion of theft and takes
in an Afrikaan boarder who, it soon emerges, hates Jews. When the boarder
becomes violent, the wronged Maputo reappears like a guardian angel to protect
the family. But the boarder easily convinces the police to arrest Maputo and he is
imprisoned, possibly for life.
Unwilling to accept the racial status quo, the defiant Libka later writes a letter to a
Malayan boy she met on a beach. In a chillingly Kafkaesque passage that
reveals the totalitarian nature of the regime, the headmistress of her correctional
school intercepts his return letter and summons Libka to the office "on a most
unsavoury matter." An inquisition ensues in which the young girl is accused of
attempting to subvert the country's basic values.
Sara Hoffman, Libka's mother, is a struggling immigrant with poor language skills
and an equally poor understanding of what is happening around her; she is
easily led and a willing victim for events about to occur. Blinkered in a different
way, Libka's brother, Beryl, wants only to fit in with his country-club friends and
impress his girlfriend. He blames Libka for bringing shame to the family.
Although a haunting and ominous feeling dominates the prose, there are also
occasional glimmers of light and sweetness. At moments In a Pale Blue Light
seems reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose wronged and martyred Tom
Robinson character shares qualities with Maputo. The themes of prejudice,
cruelty and injustice also bring to mind novels such as Disgrace and Cry the
Beloved Country. Stephen King fans may also discern a slight affinity with Carrie,
another female coming-of-age tale that features an overwhelming sense of
ridicule and ostracism.
In a Pale Blue Light joins a long and respectable list of Canadian novels set in
distant lands with little or no reference to Canada. Poritz Miller was born in Cape
Town to Lithuanian parents, and came to the United States with her family when
she was 15. She subsequently worked as an editor in the top echelons of the
literary publishing business in New York and then Toronto.
In a Pale Blue Light illuminates the Jewish experience in South Africa from the
inside. Its language is original and its voice authentic and devoid of gimmickry. It
is a mature and significant work that is bound to garner much attention and
possibly literary awards as well. The book is forthcoming from the Sumach Press
(sumachpress.com) in October.