Friday, 24 March 2000
Richard Zimler: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1998)
Review number: 461
In the early sixteenth century, Portugal was an extremely bad place to be a Jew. Enforced conversion a few years earlier had not reduced the level of persecution of New Christians, as they were now called. Instead, the Inquisition, active in Portugal in the same way as more famously in Spain, continually looked for evidence that Jewish religious practices were continuing. Then, famine in Lisbon sparked off riots, and hundreds of New Christians were killed in the belief that a Jewish sorcerer had caused the failure of the harvest.
This is the background against which Zimler's novel is set. Its protagonist, the teenage Berekiah Zarco, is apprenticed to his Jewish kabbalist book smuggler uncle. He finds the body of his uncle during the riot, yet it is soon clear that his death is not caused by the Old Christians: not only is he in the secret room in his home used as a refuge and a place to secretly carry out rituals, but his throat has been cut in the manner of a shohet, or kosher butcher. Berekiah has to investigate in the extremely dangerous atmosphere of Lisbon after the riot.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon must inevitably be compared with The Name of the Rose, as is done by the reviews quoted on the back cover. Both are medieval mystery stories with a literary twist. The comparison is reasonable, and shows that the standard against which Zimler's novel should be judged is high. However, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is nothing like as intellectual as Eco's writing, and the background is far less convincing. This is partly because of small factual errors - for example using a simile about a theatre building well before they reappeared in Europe - and the illiterate copy editing - "you're" for "your", "ascent" for "assent". These are only minor if irritating details, but the book as a whole is not able to hold the interest as well as Eco's. The terrible persecution which forms the background is made too impersonal; this is probably to make it possible for a detective story to take place in the foreground. The main use of the background is to give a reason why so many potential witnesses and suspects are missing or dead, and this trivialises the suffering of these people.