In The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler takes us back to 1506, the year of a bloody massacre of Jews in the Portuguese capitol, and gives us a brutal murder and conspiracy among the forcibly converted “New Christians” of the city. Berekiah Zarco and his uncle, Abraham, are defiantly Jewish Kabbalists at a time when it was extremely dangerous to be so. Still, they keep up appearances as Christians while Abraham smuggles religious and philosophical texts out of the country to safer places. But then forces conspire to destroy their way of life.
Berekiah is a passionate man. He loves his family. He revels in the spiritual knowledge and strength he has as his Kabbalist uncle’s apprentice. He also feels constantly simmering fury at the Old Christians who have forced the Jews underground. But then, on April 19, 1506, a massacre erupts as Old Christians violently attack Jews and converts, blaming them for the ongoing drought and an outbreak of plague. Berekiah had been sent out of the city on an errand only to return to a scene straight out of hell. Jews are in hiding while Christians roam the streets looking for victims. When he does reach home, he finds his uncle murdered in their cellar with an unknown woman. Another murder among all the other murders isn’t strange, sadly, but there is other evidence that Abraham and the woman were not random victims.
Berekiah doesn’t wait for the violence to die down before he leaps into action. He hunts down clues while also trying to find the missing members of his family, who scattered when the mob roared through. The clues point Berekiah to one of the men in Abraham’s “threshing group,” a group of Kabbalist seekers in the secret Jewish community. The more Berekiah dies, the more he realizes that he didn’t know much about Abraham’s smuggling or what secrets the man held.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon recreates the city and the lives of the Jews and converts who tried to make a home there. I will admit that I was skeptical of Berekiah and his friend, Farid’s, forensic abilities and a few anachronisms. This and a few odd details about Berekiah’s sexuality where the only problems I had with the book. But these are minor quibbles against the vibrancy of the book’s setting and the Gordian tangles of the plot. I was hooked right from the beginning, when Berekiah’s autobiography is found in a hidden trove of documents in an ancient house in Istanbul. Zimler poured historical research into the story without bogging down the full tilt plot. This book will be a great read for historical fiction buffs (so long as they have a strong stomach).