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THE LAST KABBALIST OF LISBON by Richard Zimler

THE LAST KABBALIST OF LISBON

By Richard Zimler

Pub Date: April 20th, 1998
ISBN: 0-87951-834-0
Publisher: Overlook

Despite the recent embrace of Kabbalah as the contemporary celebrity spiritual plaything, it’s unlikely that the Hollywood pack will spend many hours studying the intricacies of this willfully arcane first novel by an American writer who lives and teaches in Portugal. First published there (to wide acclaim) in Zimler’s own Portuguese translation, it’s a murder mystery set in Lisbon in the early 16th century: a time of wholesale persecution and executions of Jews (who refused to convert into “New Christians”), and also the establishment of a religious “underground” devoted to the preservation of endangered orthodox rituals. Berekiah Zarco, a young manuscript illuminator and fruitseller (whose manuscript is discovered centuries later, by this novel’s supposed editor), tells the story of his search for the killer of his beloved Uncle Abraham, a “kabbalah master” whose naked body was discovered beside that of an (initially) unknown young woman. Evidence that the two had had sex just before their deaths proves open to multiple interpretation—as do other adventures that befall Berekiah as he seeks to apply the interpretive skills taught by the Jewish mystics to the bewildering pattern of collusions and conflicts that his “investigations” disclose. Zimler’s plot wheezes and strains more than a little (there are far too many essentially similar coincidences and hairsbreadth escapes), but Berekiah’s hard-won wisdom is credibly linked to his memories of his Uncle’s exemplary stories, and effectively concealed in enigmatic proverbial nuggets (e.g., “The map of a town is in a blind beggar’s feet”). The novel exhibits a curious predilection for revoltingly detailed descriptions of torture and murder, but there’s no gainsaying its authoritative re-creation of an imperilled culture in a savage time and place, or the force of the prophecy that Berekiah finally infers from the mystery of the death his Uncle doubtless expected—and may have courted. A bit attenuated, but, on balance, one of the more unusual and interesting first novels of recent vintage.