The Smile of Silence

The Incandescent Threads | Richard Zimler | Parthian | 512 pages | 25 dollars

For his eleventh novel, Richard Zimler has returned after a fifteen-year gap to his “Sephardic Cycle”, which features members of the Zarco family, originally Jews expelled from Portugal, in different centuries and countries: Portugal itself, India, Germany, and now Poland. The Incandescent Threads is the fifth in this Cycle, but readers should know that its novels are “relatives, not sequels”, in Zimler’s words, i.e. they can be read in any order and are all free-standing. What links them is the history of persecution of the Jews – and not only Jewish people, for Zimler is marvelously broad in his rejection of all oppression, whether racial, sexual, disabled, religious, or class.

In the end, he won

Zimler’s first success, 25 years ago now, was The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996), which records the massacre of 2,000 Jews in Lisbon in 1506. The young Berekiah Zarco is driven to solve one particular murder among all the slaughter. He has to confront the question: why work so hard and dangerously to solve just one more death among so many? The answer echoes through all Zimler’s novels. It is expressed succinctly by Erik, the ibbur (or wandering spirit) who narrates The Warsaw Anagrams (2009): “We owe uniqueness to our dead”. By remembering the unique quality of each dead person, that person’s humanity is maintained. Of course, the Dominican friars leading the Lisbon massacre of 1506 and the Nazis 400 years later succeeded in torturing and murdering thousands and millions. Yet their victory was not total. They were defeated in their desire to reduce the Jews to nameless ash. Every murdered person must be remembered and named.

In the previous novel in the Sephardic Cycle (the fourth), The Seventh Gate (2007), Zimler examined the rise of Nazism in 1930s Berlin. The Incandescent Threads moves forward in time to tackle the experience of Holocaust survivors in Montreal and New York. The intimate cousins Benni and Shelly, descendants of Berekiah Zarco and survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, reach North America. Decades later, on Benni’s death in 2017, his son composed this inscription for the grave-stone: “In the end, he won”. Benni won because he honored the “uniqueness” of each dead person in his family. He won too, for he survived to have children. Berekiah had written in a scroll passed down through the Zarco family that the sacrifice of one member of the family enables future generations to live. In remembering and in having children, Benni repaid the debt he owed to his great-grandmother Rosa, who had taken his place voluntarily on a death transport. 

The Incandescent Threads opens and closes with sections narrated by Benni’s son Ethan. Four other sections are narrated by, respectively, Julie, Shelly’s Canadian wife; Ewa, a Polish Christian who protected the child Benni in Poland; Benni’s wife, Teresa; and George, a Jewish-Navaho Indian who loves Shelly. These six sections move between the Second World War and 2018, creating a “novel in the form of a mosaic”, in Zimler’s words. The different points of view and the stories told non-chronologically shine lights from different angles on and into the lives of Shelly and Benni. The structure works wonderfully well: the mosaic fits together like a multi-colored jigsaw.

Alternative history

Born in New York in 1956, Richard Zimler has lived in Portugal for over 30 years. His fiction has been instrumental in revealing to the Portuguese the suppressed history of the country’s Jews, murdered, expelled, or forced to convert and become ‘New Christians’. As such, his boldness and openness have become a major part of a powerful liberal current that is changing this small country, crushed for decades by poverty and dictatorship. In a 2009 interview, Zimler told me: 

“Many people in Portugal read my books because they are eager to know more – and to be presented with an alternative view of history.  Because I write from the point of view of the people who were exiled and tortured and converted by force, not from the point of view of the kings and prime ministers and military conquerors.  I write to tell the stories of those people who were systematically silenced for many centuries.”

Benni and Shelly, the only two members of their family still alive, deal with their guilt at surviving in very different ways. The handsome charmer Shelly is older. After escaping from the Nazis, he resolves that, as life is so fragile, it must be enjoyed in the present. Extravert, honest about his desires, he lives a hedonistic, bisexual life. Yet he is not frivolous, for he is haunted by his lost family and committed to returning to Poland to search for any survivors. 

The withdrawn Benni, only a child during the Holocaust, is the opposite of Shelly. Children like Benni who have to grow up too fast because of the world’s cruelty are portrayed in several of Zimler’s novels. The adult Benni has the distant smile common to many Holocaust survivors, deployed politely to silence the questions of their children or younger friends. He is also silent because he is unable to express what happened. As he tells Teresa, he “leaks”, often sweating and feeling faint. Why does he leak? It’s “everything I can’t put into words” (p.246).

Benni assuages his survivor guilt by studying Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, to try and understand the world. His own suffering, fed by silence and solaced by study, does not prevent him from seeing injustice elsewhere. He becomes a protestor against the Vietnam war. For Benni, the horror of the Holocaust means that napalm-burning Asian children cannot be ignored. Benni gives the novel its title, as he is convinced that incandescent threads connect people over both time and distance in improbable ways.

Children need to know

The central problems of both cousins in their adult lives lie in how their relationships with their loving and beloved wives and children are twisted by their past. They don’t talk about the horror of Nazism because it is painful to them and because, above all, they are trying to protect their children. However, children want to know. They need to know what happened to their parents before they were born, to hear stories of their grandparents and aunts and uncles. Silence and that averting smile of Benni, or silence, hidden by the laughter and play of Shelly, distance children from their parents. Zimler explores exquisitely this conundrum of his two Holocaust survivors. 

Zimler also uses Shelly and Benni’s wives with skill. In the second section, the questions of the non-Jewish Canadian Julie allow the two cousins to explain what happened in 1940s Poland and “the slow accumulation of sadness” in the joyful Shelly (p.101). And the questions of Julie and Teresa in the fourth section explain Benni’s mystical beliefs to readers.

As well as erudite, well-researched investigations into Jewish history, religion and resilience, Zimler’s novels are gripping adventure stories. The Incandescent Threads is no different. The section narrated by Ewa sits emotionally at its heart. This rather lonely, middle-aged piano teacher is afraid of protecting the child Benni because, if the Nazis catch her, she will be hanged in the village square. Ewa overcomes her fear. Her commitment to Benni becomes central to her life. She realizes she is prepared to die to defend this cruelly orphaned child. None of Zimler’s main characters are one-dimensional. Like Ewa, they are made convincing by their conflicts. 

One of the basic strengths of this and all Richard Zimler’s books is that surprisingly, and gloriously, in these stories of great crimes, Zimler writes with an optimistic tone. This is not at all seeing the Holocaust through rose-tinted glasses, for he compels his readers to look squarely at brutality. Rather, it is love of life, in defiance of the murderers.

Zimler’s style reflects and assists this optimism. It is uncluttered, direct, full of telling details of ordinary pleasures: cooking pancakes, the “pink-blossoming branches of my cherry tree”, the taste of Benni’s “warm and peppery mouth” when he kisses Teresa, trout cooked by a “jade-coloured lake”, the “heartening scent” of lilac bushes…  Smells and colors make all Zimler’s books very physically evocative and immediate. 

In short, The Incandescent Threads is a fine wide-ranging novel. Richard Zimler tackles Jewish mysticism, Native American beliefs, gay rights, depression, the Vietnam war, suicide, and motherhood, alongside the central theme, the effect of the Holocaust on survivors’ children. In contrast, the book’s style is relaxed and fast-moving. More than anything, emotions, whether of horror or of joy, are expressed with sharp clarity.

Share on Social Media:

Tikkun needs your support to bring the kind of analyses and information we provide.
Click Here to make a tax-deductible contribution.

Comments are closed.