Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Richard Zimler - The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Sold in six countries and repeatedly back to press in the U.S., The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is an international bestseller and an extraordinary novel that transports the reader into the universe of Jewish Kabbalah during the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Just a few years earlier, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptism font and forced to convert to Christianity. Many of these "New Christians", in secret and at great risk, persevered in their Jewish prayers and practiced their rituals, and the hidden, arcane practices of the kabbalists, a mystical sect of Jews, continued as well.
One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, an intelligent young manuscript illuminator. Inflamed by love and revenge, he searches, in the crucible of the raging pogrom, for the killer of his beloved uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist and manuscript illuminator, discovered murdered in a hidden synagogue, along with a young girl in dishabille. Risking his life in streets seething with mayhem, Berekiah tracks down answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and the fellow kabbatists of his uncle, whose secret language and codes at turns light and obscure the way to the truth he seeks. A marvelous read, a challenging mystery, and a telling tale of the evils of intolerance, The Lost Kabbalist of Lisbon compels and entertains.

Comment: I decided to read this book because of a book club. I had previously read another book by the author and I was quite impressed with it, so I didn't think twice about getting this one to try as well.The book ended up not being the chosen by the book club votes, but as I got it from the library, I took the opportunity to read it anyway. I was quite eager to know what it would be like considering it would be set in Lisbon, my country's capital.

This is the story of a manuscript the author found in a house where he lived for a while in Turkey. Having lived in Portugal as well, he recognized the potential and decided to present it to the world as a romance, becasue he felt the real autor deserved it. He even dedicates the book to the narrator's family and memory.
The story is the path Berekiah Zarco takes to find out who murdered his beloved uncle back in 1507. While describing the things that happened in those days when religion was a nest of problems and life was so different from nowadays, we see his life story and we get a close view of what it was like to live in Lisbon in the 16th century.

The book is amazing. I live in this country and I know Portugal was a conflictuous place due to the Inquisition and the issues among Catholics and Jewish during the troubles in the Church. People were very quick to judge and to condemn and people were burned at the stake for any number of reasons but mostly because they weren't Catholics. It's known that Catholic countries had no fairness to other religions and many people were forced to change their religion or they would burn. However, many people only pretended to convert and would stick to their beliefs in hiding or among family members. The Jewish population was severely punished in those days and many would run from the Catholic countries to places not as keen in punishing them.

This book focuses on many of these issues and Berekiah was a recent convert along with his family and so many people from his community. He was forced to have a Catholic name, Peter, and to worship a different religion. However, he never put aside his Jewish traditions or even the Kabbal, a certain segment of Judaism.
The best thing in the story wasn't exactly the pursue of the mysterious killer or even the rage Berekiah had towards the unknown person, I was more impressed with the descriptions of the political and historical situation in the beginning of the 16th century and how people lived back then. It's so mind blowing to know those things happened for sure and someone was telling exactly what happened. Inquisition is an awful weapon and it's hard not to feel empathy towards those late people who died horribly in an era of distrust and hate and without information. But that's how things were and it's almost unbelievable, even more so by knowing it was all real.
The book is full of details about those people's lives, about ways of life and traditions and the book felt richer because of that. All characters somehow portray a possibility, they seem as real now as they surely were then and until the end we get to know them all pretty well, all by the narrator's voice.
I was quite amazed and do recommend the book to everyone.

I know there are more books told by this narrator and I'd like to read them, I'll try the library again someday soon. What a journey through History...


  1. I'm glad to see you still read this book, Sonia and even better to see that you enjoyed it so much!

    1. Hello! Yes, this was much better than what I thought. Aren't good surprises the best?