JULY 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 7


Richard Zimler's "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon"

Thomas Harris' "Hannibal"

Elaine Showalter's "Hystories"
Munro's "The Love Of A Good Woman"



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The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon __ The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Richard Zimler

by Richard Zimler

US: Overlook Press, ISBN 0879518340, price $24.95 USD, price through Amazon.com $19.96 USD.

UK: Arcadia Books, ISBN 1900850214, price 9.99 GBP, price through Amazon.co.uk 7.99 GBP.


There are books that are waiting for their author. More than once in my life I have read a book and thought to myself afterwards "Well, it was a good plot, but he/she wasn't the person to write it". In Zimler's case, the reverse is true.

It is hard to imagine where else you could find an author with enough knowledge of Judaism, kabbalistic philosophy, medieval Portugal and the associated languages to be able to construct such a tale; and the tale is, in itself worth the telling, though perhaps it might have been used a little differently.

The story is set in the early sixteenth century, as Jews as being slaughtered in Lisbon and looking for safety somewhere else. It is conceivable, even to the most optimistic, that there will be no sanctuary, and that their life, their culture, their language and their religion may all be under threat. One small group therefore try to find a way of getting holy books out of the country, even if they themselves cannot leave - for if the books are safe, the faith will eventually revive.

The leader of the group, a great kabbalist called Abraham, is found dead, and the remainder of the book is based around his nephew's attempts to find the killer. However, there is much more to the book than this; it digresses around the attempts of Jews to find new lives in Portugal after converting, the sufferings of those who do not convert (sometimes with a bit too much relish for my liking, but then I find it hard to be detached about women having their hands cut off), and the brutal world which so many of the dispossessed faced.

Let me say at the outset that this is not a quick-paced book. I read around fifty pages a day for a week, which neatly happens to be about real-time pace, since the bulk of the action takes place in a single Passover week. There are descriptions of some Jewish customs, and since I am not Jewish myself I must let others tell us if they are accurate. There are snippets of history and geography, and a multiplicity of characters such that your reviewer had to re-read a couple of sections and had trouble following the plot at one point, having confused two with similar names. In a sense this adds authenticity - the number of real-life murders where only a few people need to be interviewed must be very small - but it makes keeping on top of the plot fiendishly difficult. Before too long I gave up trying to remember who was whose brother-in-law, and it did not seem to matter. Actually, it did, but if I tell you which relationship is important it might spoil it for you.

At the end of the book there is an epilogue which tells us what happened to many of the characters between the original events and the writing of the manuscript twenty-four years later. While this is interesting enough - the tale of the narrator's sister's marriage could make a book in its own right - I felt that the story was resolved by then and I just wanted to close the book and think about what I had read. The book is long enough anyway, and could have done with some editorial surgery in places; the detail is fascinating and lavishly provided, but it slows the action to a crawl in parts.

I have read other reviewers who complained about Zimler's language. It is true that some words and phrases appear too often. To my English eyes, the regular use of the verb "to gift" as a synonym for "to give" sticks out, largely because we do not use it as often as Americans do, and I doubt if they use it as much as Zimler. He also flags up his similes and metaphors with phrases like "as if", which start to leap out of the page at you after the first half dozen.

Yet you cannot ignore some of his phrasing. One character threatens an eye-surgeon with gouging his eyes out, on the ground that you should "Always threaten a man with something he knows the value of"; some enigmatic clues, such as a note describing xa tile decorating the center of a sunset", prove to be delightfully straightforward once you understand the pattern of thought of those behind them; and there are snippets you'll wish you'd thought of, such as "A map of a town is in a blind beggar's feet."

If the book is not in the same class as "The Name of The Rose" or "An Instance of the Fingerpost", it is still an enjoyable read. I sensed the atmosphere Zimler wanted to create, and I found myself reflecting on the many people of the past who never knew where or when their family died and were buried. Zimler's imagination has brought forth a troubled and troubling world - a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.

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