Saturday, August 9, 2008

Richard Zimler's The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon

This past spring, in preparation for our trip to Lisbon, I read two novels set in that city, Pascal Mercier's Night Train to Lisbon and Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon, which between them gave me a sense of the sweep of 20th-century history in that city. In the plane from Lisbon to Heathrow on our way back, the airplane magazine mentioned Richard Zimler's The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon, and so I've just finished reading that. This historical mystery novel took me much further back, to the fifteenth century, and concentrated on the lives of a Jewish family living through the horrifying pogroms that accompanied the Inquisition. I would have enjoyed it even had we not visited the city and walked through the Alfama and seen remnants of the setting Zimler features. The plot is satisfyingly complicated, altho' there's perhaps a bit too much of the elimination approach to suspects. As well, the characters are interesting, convincing, individual, and even likeable. Mostly, though, the novel appears well-researched and gave me not only insight into the time along with some knowledge of kabbala and of manuscript illumination, but a very sensory experience of the foods and smells and sounds of street and home life. Value-added escape reading -- I'd recommend this one.

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