Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss


by Richard Zimler
Overlook Press, 2011

In The Warsaw Anagrams, his eighth published novel, Richard Zimler has reached the very heart of his essential theme: the Holocaust itself. It is as if, in his previous books, dealing with the persecutions of Jews and of non-Jews—whether people in colonial India (Guardian of the Dawn), enslaved Africans in the United States (Hunting Midnight), Germans (The Seventh Gate), or Palestinians (The Search for Sana)—he had been approaching, in ever-narrowing circles, this extraordinarily painful moment.

Zimler, who was over forty when his first novel was published and is now only in his fifties, has a considerable body of work behind him, most notably the four novels in his Sephardic Cycle featuring members of the Zarco family. The four are set in different historical periods, cities, and countries. The first, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1998), tackles the massacre of 2,000 Jews in Lisbon in 1506. Its clearest purpose is to bring home to today’s Portuguese an obscured part of their history (Zimler has lived in Oporto since 1990). In Spain and Portugal, there is little understanding of the expulsion of the Jews, which ran from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. This of course did not mean polite escort onto boats into exile, but rape, murder, theft of property, and not just the cultural and social destruction of the expelled Jews (and Moors), but also the weakening of the supposedly pure Christian society left behind.

Novels of Anger and Calm

“As a writer, I want to make people look at things they don’t want to,” Zimler frequently comments. Unlike many historical novels, his are not escapist. Rather, by obliging readers to see the past, they illuminate the sources of injustice today. And he writes with ferocious anger: the scenes of violence are horrific—a headless baby on a shovel. These scenes are not sanitized as, say, in a typical war movie. When people are brutalized or murdered in Zimler’s books, their suffering comes through.

Righteous anger, however, does not make a good writer. And Zimler is good: he controls his material. He writes in calm, clear prose adorned by the occasional glistening image like a jewel in a fast-flowing stream. His novels are not descriptions of a series of brutal events (The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is something of an exception) that either numb readers or weary them with their gruesome repetitiveness. Rather, violence is more select: it roars suddenly into normal day-to-day tasks. One moment of racist or sexual violence changes everything forever. These moments hit as suddenly as the axe that severs a character’s arm in one of his lesser-known novels The Search for Sana, a bold investigation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. ...

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Michael Eaude, born in London, lives in Barcelona. He writes on Spanish literature in the U.K. press and has books published on Barcelona, Catalonia’s history and culture, and the Spanish writer Arturo Barea.

Source Citation

Eaude, Michael. 2012. Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss. Tikkun 27(1): 57.

tags: Books, Judaism, War & Peace   
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