The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler
Originally written as letter to fellow member of a book discussion club.
The novel is set in Lisbon in 1505, during a pogrom against the indigenous Jews, who are known as ‘New Christians’, having been forced to convert eight years previously. The story centers around the murder of the uncle of the narrator, Berekiah Zarco and his search for the killer and investigation of their kabbalist circle. At the end of the story Berekiah decides that he has no future in Portugal and emigrates to Constantinople.
The text of the story is prefaced by ‘Author’s Note: The Discovery of Berekiah Zarco’s Manuscript’. This purports to tell how Richard Zimler whilst staying in an ancient house owned by a friend of a friend in Istanbul’s medieval Jewish Quarter found a MSS in Jewish-Portuguse written in Hebrew characters and composed between 1507 and 1530. This MSS was written by Berekiah in a way ‘which ‘reveals a straightforward technique resembling hat of the Spanish picaresque novel’. Zimler goes on to explain the relation between this supposed MSS and The Last Kabbalist .. ‘Although ..[it].. is more than a translation, I have stayed rigorously faithful to the content of Berekiah’s writing’ except by leaving out prayers and discussions on the Kabbalah.
One thing that does strike me: I am almost wholly convinced that this is a modern novel and that the stuff re finding the MSS is, at best a literary conceit, and more likely a marketing ploy. Because:
1) It just reads modern. I can’t argue for this well .. it just does. I mean I’ve not read any authentically 16th C Iberian Jewish novels (the nearest to that I’ve read is early Gothic novels and Tom Jones – yeah and I only read that as a teenager looking for mucky bits).
2) Nothing in the biographical stuff re. Richard Zimler suggests he was educated in such a way as to be a possible translator for the alleged found MSS.
3) if such MSS had been discovered, then
a) There would have an announcement and articles on it in scholarly journals, yet there are no references given to such in the book.
b) There would be some mention of the museum or institution in which the MSS are now lodged.
4) On p48 there is a reference to the Jews enslaved by the Egyptians building pyramids. Now according to Exodus the Jews were making bricks with which to build two store cities; there is no mention in it of pyramids and anyway the pyramids were not built with bricks. The date of the exodus from Egypt was c. 1270 BCE, having been enslaved for c. 370 years, The Old Kingdom, during which were built the pyramids ended c. 2200 BCE. So there is no way in which the Jews in Exodus could have been building pyramids. Anyway, would the existence of the pyramids have been known to the culture of 16th C Lisbon?
Now, in general the fact that a novel is prefaced by a statement, purportedly not part of the novel, stating that the novel was written at a time other than that in which it really was written need not affect the worth of that novel. But in this case it seems to me that the pyramid reference is such an anachronism as to cast doubt on the authenticity of its account of Jewish life in Lisbon at that time. Suppose we came across a novel, supposedly written in Shakespeare’s time which had him visiting Glamis Castle shortly after the events in Macbeth ?! It seems to me that Zimler in writing re. The Passover celebration thought: ‘Jews in Egypt’ ‘Egypt’ ‘pyramids’ ‘Jews building pyramids’. This is a thought which might occur to someone writing re the Passover who was not part of that tradition, but it would not have come from someone in that tradition. This suggests to me not just that the novel is modern and not in any way based on the source which it claims to be based on, but that Zimmler’s research is sloppy and/or his empathy with the culture of which he writes is very shallow.
This is a novel written for a supposed audience. Several have compared it with The Name of the Rose – I think that comparison was intended by the author. All the stuff about the Kabbala was written with the intention of pushing the buttons of literary theory buffs re reading and intertextuality and so on and so on. The stuff at the end re. Jews having no future in Europe and having to move to a Moslem land is either a piece of Zionist propaganda or a piece of black anti-Zionist propaganda.
My feelings re Last Kabbalist have now hardened into what I can best characterise as loathing. I wasn’t (and am still not) entirely sure why this was so, but didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of going to the meeting with those feelings inside me.
Part of this is to do with the fact that I now feel that there is no question but that the book is not in any way based on found MSS, and that the ‘Author’s Note’ is a work of fiction. I think this view is supported by the attached discussion with Zimler (transcript of public discussion in art event in café in Sydney, Australia – URL: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s125009.htm), in that when he is queried as to his sources for the material in the novel he does not all mention the MSS allegedly found in Istanbul. Now, for me, this wrecks the authenticity of the book. In fact, it enrages me beyond reasonableness. At one level, this is because being deceived connects with something in my life over the last two years.
At another level, it is because for an author to practice such a shallow deception in a book on this subject is profoundly irresponsible. It is so, because to claim that a book on a subject which is clearly intended to echo the Nazi’s attempted genocide of European Jewry is founded on a nonexistent MSS is to give a gift to ‘Holocaust deniers’. Now it may be thought that it is highly unlikely that they will become aware of the book. I think that would be too optimistic a thought. It is a cosy liberal conceit that Racial Nationalists are of necessity stupid. I find it just astonishing that this thought either did not occur to Zimler or that he chose to ignore it. I feel much the same way over the fact that Steven Spielberg madeSchindler’s List . I mean, what kind of movies is the guy best known for ? – fantastic adventures, SF and fairy tales ! I’ve not yet had the stomach to visit Holocaust Denial websites, but know that I should. I will be surprised not to find this point made there somewhere.
Most of the reviews on it at Amazon.com were favourable. Though one which struck me said that Berekiah’s quest reminded her of a ‘role playing’ computer game. Now that was something which I felt, but I also felt it might be due to me not being a very good reader – by which I mean that I don’t think I’m very sensitive to nuances of dialogue and so on. I’m also not a persistent reader. I should confess that the last 100 pages or so of Berekiah’s quest I just couldn’t read, partly because I just didn’t care and partly because I knew that I would feel tricked at false leads and the like. I can now visualise scenes in Last Kabbalist as if from Zelda – The Ocarina of Time (N64 game) – like the scene of finding the pivoting door in the cellar.
This novel has no soul, it has no authenticity.