Richard Zimler

Review by Lynne Booker




describes the writer Richard Zimler. He is not afraid to describe the worst atrocities perpetrated by humans but he always leaves us with some hope for the future. He courageously bares his soul and draws the reader in to his own mystical world.


Richard was born in New York in 1956 and moved to Porto in 1990 and subsequently took Portuguese citizenship. His first book featuring the Portuguese Sephardic Zarco family, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, was picked as 1998 book of the year by three British critics and he won the 1998 Herodotus Award for the Best First Historical Novel. He was inspired to write the novel after reading about the 1506 Lisbon massacre of more than 2000 Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. The book is an ingenious murder mystery with kabbalistic undertones against a backdrop of religious persecution. The picture he paints of early 16th century Lisbon is dark and his clever author´s note fudges the distinction between fact and fiction. He uses this technique in his other novels.


Richard Zimler writes prolifically about different branches and generations of Zarcos in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn and The Seventh Gate. In Hunting Midnight Richard´s epic novel links action in 19th century Africa, Portugal and the southern United States. It is a tale of slavery, shamanism, friendship and betrayal and Richard has the knack of supplying an unexpected and astonishing twist to the story.


Zimler´s imagination and erudition know no bounds. Guardian of the Dawn introduces us to the activities of the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa. The Inquisition followed the Jews everywhere in both the Spanish and the Portuguese Empires, even to the small Portuguese enclaves on the Indian subcontinent where Hindus as well as Jews were imprisoned, strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public autos-da-fé. In this book the theme of betrayal and motivation to commit evil acts is based on Shakespeare´s tragedy Othello.


My personal favourite is the fourth in the Zarco series, The Seventh Gate featuring the giantess, Vera, dwarves and acrobats and set in the surreal atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s. At the centre of the story are the characters Sophie and Isaac; a young girl and a much older man who find love and honour in common. Zimler stays with the Nazi theme in The Warsaw Anagrams - a young boy is found dead and tangled in the barbed wire of the ghetto. One leg has been cut off and a small piece of string has been left in his mouth. The deaths of other young people follow and each has been robbed of a part of his body. The ghost of Erik Cohen, the ´detective´ tells the story to Heniek Corben, a survivor of the ghetto. The book has deservedly received rave reviews and won the Marquês de Ouro prize for book of the year in 2010.


The Angelic Darkness is set in 1986 in San Francisco where Bill Ticino´s marriage breaks up and Bill finds a lodger: a charismatic Portuguese called Peter who has a pet hoopoe called Maria. It is a story of repression and liberation, spiritualism and sensualism and it is full of surprises.


Fact and fiction are intermingled in The Search for Sana which is set in Haifa, France and Australia. Sana is a dancer who meets Richard at the Perth writers´ festival in 2000 where she tells him how much his novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon had meant to her. The book describes his search for the truth about the Palestinian Sana and her lifelong friend the Israeli Helena with strong emotion and enduring topicality.


Richard proves his literary versatility with his latest books. In Ilha Teresa fifteen year old Teresa moves from Lisbon to New York where her father dies and she is left in an alien anglophone environment. The book is full of black humour, sensitivity and spirituality. It will be available in English in February 2012 under the title Strawberry Fields Forever. In Love´s Voice Richard presents a book of kabbalistic haiku. He never ceases to surprise.