Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge, Z is for Zimler. And I'm done!

We usually, I think, attribute the most notorious Renaissance violence against Jews to the Spaniards and their Inquisition. But over the course of two days in 1506, the Portuguese residents of Lisbon massacred approximately 2,000 Marranos -- Jews forcibly converted to Christianity.

That horror initiates a week of mystery and vengeance for the twenty-year-old Berekiah Zarco, a "New Christian" still very much Jewish at heart, largely due to the influence of his uncle. Uncle Abraham was a father figure and religious sage for Berekiah, but when the chaos of the massacre unfolds over Lisbon, Abraham is murdered. Berekiah finds his uncle's nude body along with that of a young woman, and he knows he must find their killer. Berekiah spends the next days, the remainder of Passover, unspooling the mystery of his uncle's death and, in doing so, he reveals the complicated and fraught lives of deceit his fellow Portuguese Jews live.

I had high hopes for this book and was looking forward to being transported. It is rich in detail and texture of Jewish life, and Zimler captures well the atrocities of that April week in Lisbon. But so many other aspects of the novel were disappointing. The writing is overwrought and in need of an editor. Halfway through the book, Berekiah switches the tense of his narration from past to present, with a half-hearted explanation. Berekiah himself swings wildly from emotion to emotion, making him difficult to sympathize with (particularly when he is hateful towards his mother, for reasons unclear). In the search for his uncle's murder Berekiah identifies so many suspects - over a dozen - that it is difficult to follow them much less feel tension linked to a particular one. Berekiah's detective zeal often leaves him unsypathetic to the plight of the living around him. And finally, Zimler concludes the book by slipping away from narrative and into preaching. Anti-semitism is certainly a cause worthy of denouncing, but he apparently forgets that any reader with him for that long is likely to share his disgust for the ugly practice.

Still, I did learn a lot from reading the book, and it was interesting for me to read a novel with such an unapologetic Jewish view. I'm not sure if there were any sympathetic Christian characters - one or two minor ones - which is probably historically accurate for a 16th century Jewish narrator. So I'll give Zimler credit for avoiding a maudlin multi-faith anachronism. That's something, right?

Image is a contemporary German artist's rendering of the massacre, taken from

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