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3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
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on 12 May 2014
Very few people are aware of the ferocity and savagery of the Inquisition in Portugal, which far surpassed the horrors of that in Spain. This book covers the appalling acts of the "old Christians" against the “new Christians”, or "conversos", Jews who had been forcibly baptised, but practised their Judaism in secret and were burnt to death in huge pyres in the central Rossio square in Lisbon in their tens of thousands. Richard Zimler has used this background for a tortuous and confusing whodunit plot, introducing new characters throughout the book and gratuitous sex which is not to everyone's taste. His writing style is excruciating and makes the book heavy going. Better editing would have made the book more readable. Having met the author, who is charming, a voracious reader himself and passionate about the Jews of Portugal, where he now lives, it is difficult to believe he was capable of such bad writing.
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on 14 May 2014
I met Richard Zimler in Porto last week and it was very interesting to hear how he came to write it and get it published. However, for me, although the story is great and needs to be told, the voice didn't quite convince me. He says he likes to write in the first person, but I wanted a third person narrator whose voice I could believe in.
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on 31 August 2012
A gutsy, hugely detailed flashback to a period of horrific persecution that should be on the reading list of every resident of the Iberian peninsula who has an interest in understanding his/her own history. The subject matter and character relationships were rich enough to carry the narrative throughout. I was particularly attracted to the close relationship between Berekiah and Farid and the way it evoked an age of harmony and fraternity among Jews and Muslims. The author can be forgiven for having overindulged his desire to convey the writing style of the period, because along the way he generated some fascinating insights into the daily life of the time.
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This novel 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.
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on 21 October 2013
This is an amazing account of the persecution and massacre of Jews living in Lisbon in the year 1506. Richard Zimler captures the fear and horror of the events very graphically which sometimes makes uncomfortable reading and is reminiscent of the atrocities
which took place in world war 2. His characters are well portrayed and once I started to read this book it was very hard to put down.
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on 17 April 2001
I kept on to the end hoping it would live up to the hype. It didn't. Zimler's writing lacks any literary style. Perhaps the story is true, but his use of colloquialism and historical inaccuracy did not persuade me that this is so. The book reads very much like a film scenario. If it is based on fact, it would have been better to have left it for historical analysis.
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on 17 August 2016
Good read but you must have a notebook at hand to keep in touch with all the characters in the plot. Complex plot but well worth the effort reading.
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on 3 August 2014
Too Jewish for me. Nothing against Jews or their beliefs just too much Jewish references. Read it on my kindle and, of course glossary was at the back!!!! not easy to go back and forth. Patience needed. If it had been the book version it would have suited me better. But I did see it to the end and I will probably read it again with hopefully a better understanding on the nature of the book.
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on 20 April 2013
A historical novel that deserves to be read and should be read even if the English language is not always accurate.
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on 23 August 2000
"The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" by Richard Zimler manages, at once, to combine historical accuracy with a modern thriller-like story line.
Berekiah Zarco is a young manuscript illustrator who tells the story of the infamous Lisbon massacre of 1506. Through his eyes we relive the sheer horror of the persecution of the Jews in Portugal. The Church and the King of Spain had begun such religious "cleansing" in 1492 but the more "openminded" Portuguese were a little slower in implementing these Draconian acts. Leading up to the story is the fact that Jews had already been rounded up by the Portuguese authorities and either banished or force to recant (those who recanted became known as "New Christians"). Many chose to die rather than recant, of course. This novel recounts these last few days leading up to the massacre. Berekiah's uncle Abraham, a well-known kabbalist, is found murdered and the storyline assumes a murder-mystery air, as Berekiah is determined to find who killed him. It, indeed, is a complex line. The young man is determined to find the answers. His search takes him through his fellow Jews, Christians, the New Christians, and the Muslims. He has the support of his immediate family and his best friend Farid. (The irony is not lost in the fact that Farid is a deaf Muslim, also the subject of the Inquisition's cleansing of the Iberian peninsula.)
The story is told from a modern day standpoint, the "author" having found the
account in Istanbul in 1990. "The Last Kabbalist" is the first-person accounting of the story by Berekiah, who had written his memoirs after his own escape from Lisbon to where he eventually wound up in Turkey, not to be found for some 500 years! Indeed, the story is a complex one (Lisbon's "O Independente" compares it favorably with "The Name of the Rose.") and before it is finished, even a convoluted one! But no matter, the intellectual twists and turns make the novel memorable, yet at the same time, haunting. It is not a story easily forgotten.
"The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon" is more than just a story of one man's escape from persecution, however severe that was. Zimler has presented us with a riveting narrative that expertly weaves the historical accounting of this tragedy to a suspense-laden story well worth the read. He has created characters of great depth; he has captured the atmosphere of the time; and he has evoked the emotional responses from both readers and the characters alike. The imagery he conjures is rarely paralleled. While Zimler has worked through Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish translations, he has completed a well-knit narrative, keeping historical accuracy and personal emotion in balance, and he does so intensely and passionately. His writing style is refreshing, well-paced, and unencumbered as he plays with themes of death, violence, and even love. This is a memorable book.
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