Monday, 27 April 2009

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler

I was pleasantly surprised by this. I only really picked it up because it was a Z author that looked fairly interesting. Oh, and the blurb said it was similar to Umberto Eco's name of the Rose, which is a fantastic book.

Set during the seventeenth century Jewish Pogrom in Portugal, this is a murder mystery, historical fiction and philosophical treatise. As to which of these aspects is more important, I'm not sure. The base for the story is a young man's search for the murderer of his beloved uncle, who is killed during the horrific anti Jewish riots that take place at the start of the novel. This central to all the aspects of this story but it is not easy to read. It only covers two fairly short chapters but the atrocities committed against Jews (or New Christians as they were known after a forced conversion nine years earlier), are quite graphically described and left me with a sense of disgust that human beings could be so cruel to each other.

Berekiah, the boy who is looking for his uncle's killer, is part of a secret Jewish family, of which is uncle is head. His uncle also leads a group of secret Jews in discussion and debate about the finer points of Judaism and Kabbalism, as well as organising the smuggling of Jewish texts out of Portugal to save them from destruction. During the riot, he is found with his throat slit in his cellar, and this kicks off Berekiah's search for the killer. It is at first assumed to be part of the Pogrom, but it soon become clear that he has been killed by a Jew, so presumably, there are other motives at play.

Berekiah is helped in his search by his longtime friend, Farid, a Muslim who is deaf and mute, but they communicate perfectly through lip reading and complex gestures. He does however have an enhanced sense of sight and smell, so he notices things that Berekiah doesn't which ultimately helps with the search.

The main part of the story occurs over a few days, and the turbulent events of this time take their toll on Berekiah. Not only does he lose his Uncle, his younger brother disappears during the riot, and he witnesses some terrifying events. From the moment the whole thing kicks off, he begins to question his faith in God, and eventually loses faith both in himself and God. He is understandably violent towards anyone who tries to attack him, and although this is understandable and easily justified, he questions this in himself, and his faith. This questioning has an effect on his life permanently, but never does he lose faith in his Uncle, who continues to appear in is dreams with cryptic riddles to lead him to the killer.

Although this is historical fiction, it appears to be surprisingly relevant to modern society. Most strikingly, it is impossible to ignore the obvious parallels to the Holocaust, which we are all familiar with. But although I was aware that Jews have always been persecuted, I wasn't aware of this event, or others like it throughout history. Less obviously, but almost as relevant, Berekiah and Farid make constant references to masks, either in reference to their suspects wearing masks to hide themselves or their actions, or themselves wearing masks to protect or shield themselves from the horrors occurring. And, without giving too much away, it is a crucial part of actually discovering the killer's identity.

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