Guardian of the Dawn

Guardian of the Dawn

by Richard Zimler


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In an age of faith and fire In a land of many gods A journey of survival is about to begin.…

In his acclaimed novels Hunting Midnight and The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler has spun luminous historical fiction from the experience of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. Spanning decades and continents, his new novel is set in the lush world of colonial India during the age of the Inquisition. Here is the astonishing story of Tiago Zarco, a young man whose family fled forced conversions in Portugal and now lives in a twilight between local Hindus and the ruling Portuguese Catholics. As Tiago comes of age in Goa, the capital of the spice trade, he struggles to keep the far-reaching powers of the Inquisition from destroying his family and pulling him apart from the Hindu girl he loves. When an act of betrayal puts his beloved father in prison, Tiago is forced to hunt down the traitor and make an unimaginable choice…and for him, a harrowing journey begins–one that will show him the depths of human depravity, and the dark, poisonous salvation of revenge….

At once a grand historical adventure and a riveting tale of love and mystery, Guardian of the Dawn brilliantly illuminates a world that has rarely been described–in a novel that blazes with passion, fury, and hope.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385338813
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/26/2005
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.16(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

RICHARD ZIMLER currently lives in Portugal, where he is an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Porto. He is the author of the internationally acclaimed novels Hunting Midnight and The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and writes for the L.A. Times and The Literary Review (London).

Read an Excerpt

Guardian of the Dawn

By Richard Zimler

Random House

Richard Zimler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385338813

Chapter One

Chapter 1

After my arrest in November of 1591, I spoke to no one but my prison guard for nearly eleven months. I was neither informed of the charges against me nor allowed anything to read, and my window, a grudging slit in barren stone, was too high up to allow me a glimpse of the city below.

Hope clung to memories of Tejal, and sometimes, too, to the drumming of rain, which reminded me there was a world beyond the control of my jailors. Once, during a storm, I licked a few drops as they scurried down my wall. They tasted of Indra's Millstream and, for a time, my thoughts were splashed with all my childhood freedom, but I often think they betrayed me in the end: I was robbed of God that very night; awoke to find myself more alone than I'd ever been before, banished from the world He'd always watched over. I'd never again feel my toes curl through the red earth of rice fields or learn whether Tejal had given birth to a son or daughter.

Apologizing silently to Papa for not making the better life he'd wished for me, I reached for the treasure made of rust and sharpness I'd hidden at the bottom of my earthenware chamber pot weeks before. Sniffing its holy scent of metallic purpose, counting on defeat as my last friend, I drew it across one arm and then the other. My final portrait would be warm, and designed in my own blood, as it should be.

I knew I was damned when not even my prayers could make the nail dig deeply enough in my life to create the miracle I needed. Still, I bled well, and the river that lies beyond the Sabbath carried me far in its current. Laying my head into the justice of its waters, I dreamed of a horizon of pine and cedar far in the west, on the banks of the Jordan River.

Tejal would be informed of my death; she would now be free to marry another man. That was worth this price I had to pay.

I awoke with a jolt to a sweating priest I'd never seen before knotting rough cords around my arms. I begged him to leave me be, but he continued his work and dumped me with a grunt of disgust onto my cot. I tugged at his rosaries to try to break my fall, sending the beads scurrying over the floor.

"Mulatto bastard!" he shouted at me. "We'll get a confession from you yet!"

No, I thought, in the voice of the child I'd been. Even though I am not what I was, there's still too much glue on my soul for it to leave me so easily.

Two guards hunted on all fours for the beads-men turned to groveling boars by the incantation of my contempt. For no reason I could think of I began to paint the stripes of a tiger on my face with blood from my wrists. Later I remembered Wadi's nickname for me and thought: Yes, I need to become another kind of being, someone ferocious, for if I don't, I shall name others and sentence them to my fate.

It was my father who had told me that our Dominican and Jesuit masters craved the identities of all those who were like us. Sooner or later, the priests would try to torture the names from me.

I drifted into a feverish slumber. My memories were needles, and all my past was prickly and poisoned-a childhood twisted and finally deadened by fate.

The next morning, just after the bells of prime, guards brought an old, cinnamon-complexioned man with bristling white hair into my cell, undoubtedly hoping that his companionship would keep me from reopening my wounds; the Church would not easily give up the pleasure of deciding how and when I'd be murdered.

The old man's feet were crabs of crusted skin. I turned away; compassion comes through the eyes and I did not want him to know I could still feel such a useless emotion.

He crumpled to the ground when my usual guard-a dim-witted Lisboner with the dull green eyes and fetid breath of a man always sneaking a drink-pulled away his hands from under his shoulders. The prisoner's head fell back at a cockeyed angle and his eyes closed.

O Analfabeto, the Illiterate, as I called my guard, told me that my guest was a Jain accused of sorcery. Torturers had coated his feet with coconut oil and roasted them like meat.

The old man's metallic black eyes opened for a moment and he looked at me as though we shared a damning secret. What it was, I had no idea. Maybe he was only hoping I would be kind to him in his misery.

Striding out of our cell triumphantly, the Illiterate slammed our inner door closed and kneeled down, so that his bulbous face was sectioned by the grille. He showed me a wry smile. "They used coals," he said. "Coals burn much hotter than wood."

Even fire works on their behalf, I thought.

Once the guard had gone, I soaked my shirt in my water jar. I draped it over the Jain's feet, which were hot to my touch. Likely, his very dreams were ablaze. He would never again walk without assistance.

In the night, his breathing was like sand falling into my hands. I slept fitfully. Time panted beside me in my nightmares and became a cyclops with crusted blood on his lips-like my father the last time I'd seen him. He tore the wings off a parrot and pressed the bird's mangled flesh into my hands. I carried it gently, as though it were my own dead child. I pictured Tejal in labor, calling for me to come to her. Was our baby still alive?

Whenever I awoke, mosquitoes buzzed insanely in my ears, whispering that my efforts to help the Jain were pointless.

At dawn, my guest greeted me with a cheerful wave of his hand. Seated on the floor, he was sunken-cheeked and goat-ribbed, and the skin on his chest and belly was pleated old parchment. He looked from the bandages around my wrists to my eyes and smiled gently, inviting me in the way of my homeland to speak. I turned away.

"You should not be so eager for the wings of your next life," he said in Konkani.

I resented his advice. And I didn't trust his voice, which was quick and bright, as though his thoughts were jumping through him. Perhaps it was the pain.

I made no reply, hoping he would assume I did not speak his language and leave me be. Instead, he raised a crooked finger and pointed at my eyes. My mind must have greatly weakened during my confinement, because my heart tumbled at the thought that he might hiss an incantation against me. I backed against the wall.

"There's no need to fear me," he said, pronouncing his words slowly, thinking me a foreigner. "It's just that I've seen your blue eyes before." When I made no reply, he added, "On the butterflies that come to my village every spring."

He raised and lowered his arms as though fluttering his wings, his hands curling out elegantly, like a dancer from Kerala. He smiled, inviting me again to speak.

"Talking to me will only bring you more trouble," I said in Konkani. "I am damned."

"So you are from here!" he exclaimed happily, as if we were now on friendly terms. "Then maybe you know which butterflies I mean? Yes? They are purest black, each one like a moonless night, except that they have blue spots here and here." He touched the sides of his chest. "In my village, they say they are the north wind given form."

I can still feel how I resisted the tug of his musical voice pulling me back toward life. "I am useless to you," I told him, turning aside, wishing I could be as hard and senseless as the prison walls. I felt his curious gaze pressing down on me. Did he want me to vow that I'd never again try to take my own life? I buried my head in my tattered mattress and squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could vanish. After a time, I thought of confessing to him how I'd murdered Papa, but I believed then that silence had more to offer me than any man.

Only later did I realize what needed to be said first: I will never speak to you as if you have any authority over me. Only my father had that and I have killed him. . . .

We were soon given breakfast through the slat in our inner door. My companion hunched his shoulders as he scooped up his rice into his mouth, his meticulous slowness seeming to mock my hunger. As a Jain, he was permitted only vegetables and grains, and I thought of a plan to distance him from me after he held his fried fish up by its tail and nodded at me to take it. The guards must have given it to him as a cruel joke.

"When I was a boy," I said, waving away his offer, "I caught one of those black butterflies you mentioned."

"I knew it!" he said with a sprightly laugh. "You were drawn to it." He touched his chest again to indicate the blue spots. "It was a kind of destiny. Yes, don't you think so?"

"I do not believe in destiny," I replied brusquely. I thought I was speaking the truth. Now I'm not so sure; so much seems to have happened in the only way it could have.

I knew that all life was holy to a Jain-down to the tiniest worm. So it was that I was certain that sooner or later the old man would ask if I'd taken the butterfly's life. When he did, vengeance glowed in my chest like a dark star. "I crushed it in my fingers," I told him, "and I've never regretted it."

Tears welled in his eyes.

"Don't waste your sorrow on a speck of being that has neither soul nor sense," I said. I spoke as though I knew what I was talking about; confinement had given me a grudging, bitter arrogance and a teacherly voice I barely recognized as my own.

Those who claim that people cannot ever really change have never been in prison and learned that miserable walk of confinement that can end only in death.

He pursed his lips tightly together as if unwilling to voice a terrible truth, and I realized what should have been obvious-I was the small, soulless creature he felt sorry for. I laughed for the first time in ages; to be more pitiful than a crushed insect seemed quite an accomplishment.

"If my mind weren't nearly gone, I would find a way to kill us both," I told him.

He gazed up at me, his black eyes sorrowful. I despised his willingness to feel so much for someone he knew nothing about.

"How would you like it if I beat you now?" I said, jumping to my feet. "Would you still care so much about me?" The urge to punish him surged in me with the destructive force of a house collapsing. "I could break your bones and no one here would stop me. They would welcome it."

I made a fist and shook it at him, as though confirming I was the dramatic villain in a play written for me by a secret enemy-the person who'd betrayed me and caused my arrest. The Jain's hands rushed up to protect his face, and in that gesture I saw he'd been beaten as well as burned. When I knocked them away it was as if a rope inside me had snapped, and I was falling freely away from myself. I kept hitting him until I drew blood from his mouth.

Afterward, my fear at what I had become was akin to drowning. I whispered an apology and retreated to my cot, hugging my legs to my chest. I closed my eyes and said nothing for hours, trying to think of what Papa would want me to do, but his voice had disappeared from inside me.
At dusk, I kneeled next to my cellmate. "Kill me," I whispered.

"I can't. It is forbidden to me."

"Please, you don't understand. I couldn't bear being burnt or made to swallow water until I drown. If I'm tortured, I might reveal the names of people who've helped my father and me. If I am dead, the girl I am betrothed to will be able to marry another man." I held his shoulder. "Smother me in the night, while I sleep. I'll give you all I own for that one act of kindness. I'll tell you now where to go when you are free, and you will collect my belongings from my sister and uncle."

He shook his head. I pushed him away.

That night, he crept to me and lay down beside me. He took my hand and gripped it hard.

"Forgive me for failing you," he whispered. "I am very sorry."

I pushed at him, but he held me tight. He was much stronger than I thought. I was sure that his persistence was a sign of madness, but that seemed a blessing; we would be equals during our time together.

We lay in silence. I pictured my sister when she was four years old, her eyes bright with joy; inside the basket I held out to her was a butterfly I'd caught-not the kind the Jain had spoken of, but one that was scarlet and gold. It fluttered to the rim and flexed its wings, glowing in the sunlight like stained glass. My sister giggled as I sniffed at it. When it took wing, she raised her arms and yelped with joy. I stood behind her and put my hands on her shoulders, pressing my love into her, as I'd learned from Nupi, our cook and housekeeper. I was sure we'd always be together.

The Jain caressed my cheek. I knew somehow that he was requesting my thoughts. Or maybe my loneliness over the last year made me want to believe that his every gesture was an invitation to speak of my past.

"The butterfly I caught was not the kind you mentioned," I confessed. "And I didn't kill him. I really only wanted to show him to my sister. And to smell him-though that seems so odd now."

He laughed softly. I turned on my side toward him. His moist breathing was warm against my face. It seemed like the wind of God I'd been missing.

The blackness of our cell made it impossible to see more than the smoke-shapes of my own imagination, but I believed he was looking for something deep inside me. I felt his probing as though it were a stone in my chest. I wanted to embrace him but knew that I'd begin to sob if I did so.

Excerpted from Guardian of the Dawn by Richard Zimler Excerpted by permission.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This brilliant and moving novel has been a huge bestseller in Portugal, where I live. 'Guardian of the Dawn' brings readers to 16th-century Goa, the glorious capital of the spice trade, but also a city terrorized by the Portuguese Inquisition. I was particularly drawn to Tiago, the young Jewish narrator of the book, who eventually ends up a prisoner of the Inquisition, like his father. Tiago is complex and conflicted, and it is fascinating to follow his evolution over the course of the novel. Through him, this book asks the difficult question: how far can one bend one's own moral code to fight intolerance and evil? I also loved two of the minor characters, both of whom are amazing creations: Nupi, the warm-hearted and charismatic Hindu cook who works for Tiago's family; and Phanishwar, the Jain snake-dancer who shares Tiago's prison cell. For attentive readers, there is a bonus here: Zimler re-tells the story of Othello from before the action of Shakespeare's play. In other words, he brings Iago and Othello back to their childhoods (though they are called Tiago and Wadi in this novel), and shows us what might have gone wrong between them. The last quarter of the novel runs parallel to the action of Shakespeare's play and becomes a tragic page-turner. I read the last 150 pages of the book in one sitting, completely enthralled by the story and the superb writing. 'Guardian of the Dawn' is a very ambitious and exciting novel. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literary fiction, Indian history or Jewish history.