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. {{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

Another of Zimler’s qualities as a writer—and this too helps him channel his rage at injustice—is that he is not at all Manichean. He does not believe that all Jews were good and all Christians bad. He explains the historical and social background; the evil friars of Last Kabbalist are not only evil by nature, but act evilly in a world in which the monarch, the Church, and rising social classes in conflict combine to scapegoat the Jews. This perception spills over into a broader, more general criticism of racial and sexual oppression, which means that Last Kabbalist’s portrayal of the close connection between war and sexual atrocity can reflect events like the Bosnian war, which took place as Zimler wrote the book. His is not historical writing that tells stories about a closed past: Zimler’s past is still open, an uncured wound, and lives on in the present.

The preceding paragraph may make Zimler appear something of a materialist historian or a didactic essayist. For sure his books are very well researched, but he is above all a novelist in the sense of exploring people’s behaviors and feelings. The research, the thorough historical and social background, serves to highlight the particular world in which his main characters struggle to grow. And in their growth, victories, and defeats, they show a deep spirituality, which gives his novels a further dimension. In nearly all his novels there is a character or characters with a mystic vision of the world: some are students of Kabbalah, trying to approach God through meditation. “In Kabbalah, all books can be read on four levels: literal, allegorical, ethical, and mystical,” Zimler told me in an interview in 2007. “I wanted to try to do something similar in Last Kabbalist.

Thus, Last Kabbalist is the outraged history of an outrageous massacre; a crime thriller in which Berekiah Zarco, the protagonist, seeks to solve one particular murder; an intense kabbalistic meditation; a coming-of-age novel in which Berekiah encounters sex, betrayal, and murder in a few intense days; and a sustained reflection on the meaning of life and God in the midst of racist slaughter.

Four Stories of Hurt Children

The Zarco tetralogy was not conceived as a series of connected novels, like the Rocky films, but is rather an overarching project within which Zimler’s themes could be worked out: “relatives, rather than sequels,” in his words. Each of the four novels is entirely independent, but read as a whole their common themes fall into focus. Following The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon came Hunting Midnight (2003), Guardian of the Dawn (2005), and The Seventh Gate (2009).

Hunting Midnight is a grand historical saga that starts in the Portuguese city of Oporto, which is threatened by a possible return of the Inquisition in the late eighteenth century. Jews have to live in careful secrecy while demented Christian preachers incite the ignorant to murder. The novel travels to a Virginia slave plantation (a passage narrated by the young slave woman, Morri—a daring and successful attempt on Zimler’s part) and ends up in New York in the early nineteenth century. This is both a wider canvas than Last Kabbalist and also shifts the focus of interest away from the world of Portuguese Jews. John Zarco becomes secondary to the remarkable Kalahari Bushman called Midnight, whose perceptions of the world are so intelligent and different from those of Europeans. The portrayal of Midnight works wonderfully well: both mystic and highly practical, Midnight is careful with people, a psychologist of sorts.

The most intensely lyrical pages in all Zimler’s work are the first seventy of Hunting Midnight. The pampered John Zarco and his friends, the street kids Violeta and Daniel, joyfully grasp young life and believe they can mold the future to their desires. But John learns loss and guilt too young, as Violeta’s diamond-bright personality is crushed by her rape and he cannot save Daniel from disaster. This progress from childhood to adulthood is common to most of Zimler’s novels. His protagonists have to grow up too soon by learning things they are not ready to learn. John sets out on an epic quest to find Midnight, the person who cured him of guilt and depression when he was young. On his route he encounters Charleston Jews—some of whom are themselves slave owners—bidding to integrate into Southern white society. Zimler’s answers are never easy: the Jews are not always the good guys but are buffeted around by ideology and the societies they live in.

The third Zarco novel is not as spectacular as Hunting Midnight, but is in several ways the most satisfying of his books. Guardian of the Dawn is set in late sixteenth-century Goa, a thriving Portuguese spice colony on the west coast of India. Here again, Zimler recreates a distant world in all its colors, smells, and sounds. Again he dares to show the deep happiness of childhood and the marvelous potential of his characters’ lives. And again he does not flinch from describing the violence and death that make former happiness seem so cruelly distant. The Inquisition—attacking Jews, Protestants, and Indian religions alike—is the main tool of Portugal’s colonial domination of Goa. It destroys the closest bonds of family and friendship, ruining young Tiago’s life. Readers, drawn into the story through Tiago’s point of view, long for him to be ennobled by his suffering and are delighted by the revenge he exacts so cunningly on his jailor and on the vicious priest who lured his Indian friend to prison and death. (Zimler always writes great adventure stories.)

This is not, though, the ultimately harmonious world of Alexander Dumas, in which a wrongly imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo wreaks vengeance on the powerful crooks who abused him. It is the universe of Jacobean “revenge tragedy,” in which revenge is all too sweet, maybe justified, but is corrupting too. The noble Tiago turns into Iago, the murderous outsider in Othello. Unlike Hunting Midnight’s protagonist John, who comes through his trials, Tiago is debased into the mirror image of his persecutors. It is a novel about evil. Evil behavior for Zimler is not innate, but stems from both the ruling class’s ideas and individual choices.

The last of the Zarco tetralogy, The Seventh Gate, tackles the rise of Nazism in 1930s Berlin. Through all the Zarco novels, the centuries-old persecution of the Jews is at the fore; and in all, he takes care to show that our rulers not only persecute Jews, but also divide and rule by scapegoating homosexuals, the physically disabled (as in The Seventh Gate), or any other minority. In The Seventh Gate, there is another young protagonist who has to find herself, working through her anger at the world.

A Nightmare of Collective Imprisonment

Zimler’s latest novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, moves forward a few years to 1940 and 1941. Erik, a distinguished elderly psychoanalyst, has to leave his comfortable flat and move into the Warsaw Ghetto, the walled “island” where the Jews were confined during the Nazi occupation of Poland. In the tiny apartment of his niece, Stefa, and her nine year-old son, Adam, he must not just adapt to a frozen, starving life on the edge of death, but learn to overcome his selfishness. It is the child Adam who sets the old man on this road.

The novel is narrated by a dead man. How could it be otherwise? This is not the broad canvas of Hunting Midnight, but the nightmare of collective imprisonment in an overcrowded, ever-shrinking area. The Warsaw Anagrams is no story of heroic struggle and those few who escaped; it deals with the everyday frailties and courage of a varied cast of ordinary Jews as they try to survive. They stink, their teeth fall out, children tell lies and risk their lives to steal rotting vegetables, young women sell themselves, and the old freeze to death. Almost all die in the novel, and the dead man Erik, an ibbur (spirit wandering the world), is the fitting recorder of their lives.

The Warsaw Anagrams is a highly realist murder mystery, despite being narrated by an ibbur. As in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, the narrator sets out in the midst of massacre to solve one particular killing: the murder of Adam, whom Erik loved and was responsible for protecting. The murder removes all future from Erik’s life. Like Tiago, Erik loses his fear of death; all that matters is tracking down the killer. One might wonder: why bother with one person’s death when slaughter is all around? “We owe uniqueness to our dead” is the imperative that Erik comes to understand. By remembering the unique quality of each dead person, that person’s humanity is maintained and the Nazis are defeated in their desire to reduce the Jews to nameless ash.

Zimler’s books, even this one in the grimmest of settings, have a surprisingly jaunty style and an optimistic feel. If you look squarely at brutality and find that even in the harshest situations people are capable of growth, kindness, and loyalty, then optimism can sprout. As well as the many non-Jewish Poles who didn’t want to know about the ghetto, a few of Zimler’s characters risk and give their lives to protect Jews. Zimler’s style, too, assists optimism. It is clear, direct, and full of telling details of life’s ordinary pleasures: a cigarette, the joy of children singing, warmth on a frosty morning, a budding plant or the sun peeking through storm clouds. This straightforward style is not sentimental or simple, but laced with flashing insights and subtle psychology. Smells and colors make all Zimler’s books very physically evocative and immediate.

Erik succeeds in telling his story. The dead are remembered. Like the Zarco novels, The Warsaw Anagrams is both a fast-moving, readable mystery and a rich, serious novel. Despite the many books and endless discussions on the Holocaust, Zimler offers a fresh voice, one that has endured anger and terror to offer us optimism. He has seen the worst of human behavior and now dances joyfully on the edge of the abyss. His writing reaches the stature of his vision: looking without flinching at the most terrible events, then enjoying life, for it’s the only one we have.


(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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