Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

This historical novel by Richard Zimler is compelling and well-written, but tough going. The narrative covers several days of the 1507 massacre of "New Christians" -- forcibly converted Jews -- and makes for often gruesome reading. Zimler spares few details of dismemberment and burning, sudden death and suffering in the frenzy of persecution.

But those tragic events are the backdrop for a mystery involving betrayal within the Jewish community. Berekiah Zarco's beloved uncle, the leading kabbalist in the community, is slain during the riots not by Old Christians but by someone within his inner circle who knew his secrets. These are not kabbalistic rituals, but the safekeeping and smuggling of forbidden Jewish manuscripts. Berekiah, a young illuminator and would-be kabbalist, finds his uncle's body in compromising circumstances but knows from the manner of death and location of the body that one of possibly half a dozen people was the culprit.

He sets himself to find out who killed his uncle and to avenge him. He must fight his own grief and the skepticism of the grieving survivors in his family, while avoiding the ever-present risks of the sectarian violence.

Zimler narrates all this with a tactile feel for medieval Lisbon and an authoritative understanding of the Jewish milieu. He never takes time out to pendantically explain kabbalism, and in fact this esoteric Jewish practice does not play a major role in the plot. Rather it colors the characters and lends further mystery to the action.

The story is about remaining true to your beliefs in a time of deceit, and loyal to your comrades when betrayal can save your life. Many of the characters make some compromise to survive, but there is a clear line separating those whose faithlessness costs the lives of others. Berekiah comes to see that his uncle's killer is not the only villain.

Unraveling the mystery is an intricate and sometimes bewildering process as Berekiah suspects and then clears each of his uncle's inner circle, only to have them fall under suspicion again as new evidence emerges. The reader has to do some work to keep track of the comings and goings of the characters.

The story is framed by Berekiah in later life in Constantinople and his decision to go back to Lisbon and bring his remaining family away from Christian Europe into the safety of the more tolerant Muslim domains. The portrayal of Old Christians, and especially the Dominican Inquisitors who fomented the massacre, is unrelentingly harsh. The bleakness and cruelty of medieval society portrayed here is reminiscent of Arras under the plague in Andrzej Szczypiorski's A Mass for Arras

Berekiah is skeptical that Christian Europe will ever be safe for Jews and of course the events of the 20th century bear this out. But neither are the Muslim domains and perhaps the real lesson is that no one is ever safe from bigotry.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Thriller fails

I try to support Politics & Prose by choosing books at random based on what they display on the tables. The books are attractive, I sometimes know the authors, and the blurbs and opening pages convince me to buy. But lately I've been striking out, coming home with books that I quickly become disappointed with.

The latest was Don't Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xialong, featuring his Inspector Chen in Shanghai. I've had his Death of a Red Heroine on the shelf for some time but never gotten around to reading it. I gave this book quite a while, a good halfway through it, letting the exotic setting in a resort outside Shanghai, the plot about environmental decay and the author's penchant for quoting poetry, both classical Chinese poetry and Chen's own verses carry me along. But it was just plodding along. The writing, aside from the poetry, is lackluster, the characters like a literary version of naive art, and the mystery anything but compelling.

This miss closely followed an earlier purchase of Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon. I've read several of Kanon's books, though I didn't think his later novels matched the quality of his debut, Los Alamos. Obviously, the setting in postwar Istanbul intrigued me, but I found the beginning of the book at least quite dull, sort of Alan Furst without the drive (just as the later Furst books seem to lack any oomph). It may be that I'll pick this up another time and get into it, but I'm leaving it aside for now.

The first strike of the three was The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri, the new novel featuring Inspector Montalbano, which I've already commented on.

Let me indulge in a quibble. My theory is that an author will not have a main character who smokes unless the author him(her)self smokes. Camilleri leaves you in no doubt because he's holding a cigarette in his author photo in the best 1950s fashion. I accept that culturally, in Sicily and China, for instance, a lot more people still smoke and it's perfectly logical to have a character with this habit. But at this point I personally just find it offensive and while I might be willing to overlook it in a crackerjack book that I can't put down, it just becomes another annoyance if I'm plodding along in a dull narrative. In general, I think it rarely contributes in any significant way to atmosphere or characterization and sometimes even seems to be a passive-aggressive act of defiance on the author's part. So fine, ohne mich.

One of the advantages of buying books online is that you can do a little research before actually making the purchase. While the star ratings may be a little dubious, they do win in credibility with numbers and you can always look for outside reviews. Most of my online purchases start the other way -- I run across someone who raves about a particular book and go to Amazon for the purchase after some cursory due diligence. I will continue to browse at P&P, but I will be more cautious about impulse purchases.