Review: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon – Richard Zimler

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.

7 comments to Review: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon – Richard Zimler

  • It’s good to see you reviewing these. I own but haven’t read this book. Reading this I’m glad I picked it up and didn’t get rid of it in my recent book purge.

  • Tom

    Max, I really think you’ll enjoy the Last Kabbalist. The whole series builds up to be quite an amazing achievement but The Seventh Gate is the pinnacle in my view

  • Dan

    I read this recently and was hoping for insights into the dark heart of humanity and a picture of a time place and people that I knew little about, but it was not to be. The cartoon characterisation with noble intelligent and clean jews vs ignorant filthy homicidal non jews is jarring to say the least, then the cod cliched whodunnit (bodies found in a mysteriously locked room, secret manuscripts, conspiracies) dragged on and on until frankly I didn’t care whodunnit or why. The last page is probably the most telling though, when the author through Zarco ponders whether jews will ever find a safe haven and be free from the persecution of christians etc. I just wish Zimmler had the courtesy to lay out his baggage at the beginning, I wouldn’t have wasted any time on the rest.

  • Tom

    Dan – oh well, each to his own. I thought it was a great book.

  • Serge

    I was a bit surprised at Dan’s characterization, too — the range of both Jewish and non-Jewish characters is pretty broad, from treacherous and disloyal and murdering Jews to the only character who is a bit woodenly noble, a gay Muslim. I think that if Dan thinks about the book more carefully he will see that it is pretty different from the way he has described it.

  • Tom

    Serge – thanks for you comment. I think I need to revisit this book sometime as its a while since I read it.

  • I have had this book in the shop for sometime…now with the heat here in the Eastern Washington landscape, this has been the book of choice…As the proprietor of a rather small bookshoppe, the offerings are well chosen, that being said, I relish this book that has been calling to me ever since I put it in the collection…..I lived in the Jewish sections of European cities for some years, and this territory of subject is sooo immersible for me, having stood on those streets and walked thru the garrets , there is a visceral sense of a peoples’ past now long gone which lingers…..

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