This novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, lays the foundation for Zimler’s magnificent Zarco series, which charts the fortunes of the descendants of Zerkiah Zarco over several centuries. It is suprising that some readers have failed to see that this is a work of fiction – Zimler likes to mix up fact and fiction and to lay a documentary trail for his work, which while definitely fictional is based on solid historical research.
The theme of the novel is unique – I had never heard of the massacre of Jews in Lisbon in 1506, and it was fascinating to read of the cultural milieu of the time, and to see how these events impacted on the families in the Jewish ghetto. The relationship of Jew to Gentile is described well, and shows how a delicate web of trans-cultural relationships sustained the commercial world, but how easily this could be broken in the mad rush to blame Jews for economic troubles. Zimler shows how the progrom was led by Dominican friars who used the most inflammatory descriptions of the Jews in order to inflame the Gentile community and it is particularly shocking to see how fundamentalist Christianity can be as cruel a cult as any.
The novel is not all darkness and terror (although this features liberally!). It also contains a fine detective story as Berekiah seeks to discover who murdered his uncle Abraham, the expert Kabbalist and book illustrator.
All literature of Jewish persecution points eventually to the greater Holocaust of the last century and Zimler inevitably writes with knowledge of the far larger scale events of Nazi Germany. And indeed his readers too cannot help but look ahead to see how the Lisbon progroms forshadowed the rabid persecutions of the Hitler regime. It is important in my view to read this book as the first volume of Zimler’s epic story of the Zarco line, and having come to his work through the latest book, The Seventh Gate, it is fascinating to see the roots of the later work in this, the first volume.