This is the first book I have read by Richard Zimler and I am very impressed. I have read many books about Germany in the 1930s, both fiction and non-fiction, but none quite capture the dilemmas faced by ordinary Germans as the Nazi party came to power, as this book does.
The Seventh Gate centres around Sophie, an adolescent girl living in Berlin, with a Communist father and an overbearing mother, and a seemingly autistic brother. The cast of characters is huge, including Isaac Zarco, a Jewish expert on the Kabbalah, and a number of circus performers, some of whom have disabilities or deformities which only the circus seemed to find a place for.
Sophie gets drawn into this circle of people who would later suffer at the hands of the Nazis, at the same time as her own parents get drawn into the Nazi party. Sophie herself finds herself living a double life, continuing to help and see her new friends, while being compelled by her mother to join the League of German Maidens, the female wing of the Hitler Youth movement. To make life even more complicated, she is love with a young Nazi, despite hating the ideas he stands for.
The book is structured around the Seven Gates of the Kabbalah, and each section seems to reveal new dilemmas and new horrors as the Nazi party rises to power. Obviously the backcloth of the story is Jewish persecution, but we are also confronted with the effects of the Naziâ€™s horrific policies towards disabled people. The fictional setting allows Zimler to show what those policies meant in human terms, particularly the impact on families and friends of those whose bodies carried signs of â€œinferiorâ€ physical conditions.
Sophie is a convincing character, full of contradictions, and with a mind of her own which is usually at odds with her parents views and those of her German friends. Through reading this book I have understood much better how the German people went along with the reign of Nazi terror. For most Germans the choice was between adopting the Nazi line or making a stand which would undoubtedly have had dire consequences for your own and your familyâ€™s lives. Zimler shows us clearly that one act of compromise leads to another, and that to fail to make a stand at the start led inevitably to the horrors to come.
Another main character in the book is Berlin itself. Zimler seems to be intimately acquainted with the city and his descriptions (and detailed map) are a notable feature of the book. Similarly, the many small illustrations of characters in the book are a delight. Indeed, the book is beautifully designed and is a delight to handle and read.
This is a magnificent book, reminding me slightly of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum – equally disturbing and quite as challenging.