THE LAST KABBALIST OF LISBON
Zimler, Richard
(Overlook Press, 1998)

Reviewed by Sue Feder

In the late fifteenth century, the relatively peaceful Jewish community of Spain was expelled by Isabella and Ferdinand, who prevailed upon King Manuel of Portugal to do the same. Manuel instead elected to have Portugal 's Jews forcibly converted to Christianity. The "New" Christians were never quite trusted by the "Old" ones, who suspected them of secretly continuing to practice Judaism. They were right, of course, which is still no excuse for the Passover Holocaust in 1506 Lisbon, when a large percentage of "New" Christians and secret Jews were raped, beheaded, torched and otherwise tortured, mutilated and murdered.

One person killed during the chaos was Abraham, a brilliant mystic. His nephew and heir believes that Abraham was killed by another Jew, someone who was very close to the family and its secrets.

As young Berekiah tries to avenge his beloved uncle by learning the identity of his murderer, we are taken on a terrifying tour of the week from Hell, as well as a fascinating exploration of Jewish mysticism. Lacking the precepts of the modern detective, Berekiah is thoroughly believable as he chases from one suspect to the next with little logic amidst his growing paranoia. The miserable lives of people who cling to faith at the risk of life, or who cling to life at the forfeit of soul, are achingly depicted as Berekiah spirals ever closer toward madness in his quest. Terrible images -- a severed hand with a beautiful ring still gracing its fingers; a street littered with thousands of teeth, the only remains of people who have been otherwise reduced to ash -- will haunt you for a very long time.

According to a fairly lengthy introduction to the novel, which is written in the form of a diary, the story is based on the real diaries of the real Berekiah Zarco, about the real murder of his uncle. If true, the story of the discovery of the diaries and Zimler's theory of Uncle Abraham's contribution to the Sephardic legacy make an interesting story of their own; and if part of the fiction, it is positively ingenious.

I truly hope that this debut novel finds a paperback edition for a wider audience.

(This book was the winner of the 1998 Herodotus Award for Best First US Historical Mystery.)