Recently, Jewish mysticism has become a popular draw, and this first novel, a bestseller in Portugal where it was first published and where American author Zimler lives, is worthy reading even for those in a non-philosophical frame of mind. From the moment Berekiah Zarco, a Jewish resident of Lisbon during the early 1500s, discovers the murder of his religious mentor (with a nude female corpse beside the holy man), the story moves quickly. Trailing suspects, Zarco and his cronies navigate the blood-soaked streets of Lisbon during a Christian 'purge' of Jewish faithful. Along the way, the reader learns about the age's homeopathic cures and observes a traditional Jewish exorcism. Those who understand and appreciate the history of Kabbalah can revel in the mysticism; the uninitiated will gain perspective while enjoying a literary and historical treat. -- Margee Smith, Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, Midland, MI
Despite the recent embrace of Kabbalah as the contemporary celebrity spiritual plaything, it's unlikely that the Hollywood pack will spend many hours studying the intricacies of this willfully arcane first novel by an American writer who lives and teaches in Portugal. First published there (to wide acclaim) in Zimler's own Portuguese translation, it's a murder mystery set in Lisbon in the early 16th century: a time of wholesale persecution and executions of Jews (who refused to convert into 'New Christians'), and also the establishment of a religious 'underground' devoted to the preservation of endangered orthodox rituals.
Berekiah Zarco, a young manuscript illuminator and fruitseller (whose manuscript is discovered centuries later, by this novel's supposed editor), tells the story of his search for the killer of his beloved Uncle Abraham, a 'kabbalah master' whose naked body was discovered beside that of an (initially) unknown young woman. Evidence that the two had had sex just before their deaths proves open to multiple interpretation, as do other adventures that befall Berekiah as he seeks to apply the interpretive skills taught by the Jewish mystics to the bewildering pattern of collusions and conflicts that his 'investigations' disclose. Zimler's plot wheezes and strains more than a little (there are far too many essentially similar coincidences and hairsbreadth escapes), but Berekiah's hard-won wisdom is credibly linked to his memories of his Uncle's exemplary stories, and effectively concealed in enigmatic proverbial nuggets (e.g., 'The map of a town is in a blind beggar's feet').
The novel exhibits a curious predilection for revoltingly detailed descriptions of tortureand murder, but there's no gainsaying its authoritative recreation of an imperilled culture in a savage time and place, or the force of the prophecy that Berekiah finally infers from the mystery of the death his Uncle doubtless expected, and may have courted. A bit attenuated, but, on balance, one of the more unusual and interesting first novels of recent vintage.