Good Reading : February 2005
goodreading 11 up close but only those which fit within the compass of the story. Readers hate unnecessary detail put in because the writer knows a lot about the subject, and wants the reader to know just how much he knows. That’s literary arrogance, which I can’t bear. I want the reader to appreciate my storytelling, which is backed up by supportive detail.’ In Australia and New Zealand recently to promote his latest novel, Hunting Midnight, Zimler spoke passionately about why he loves writing fiction: ‘Fiction enables a writer to talk about the big issues, and to peel away all the unnecessary elements which confuse people. Fiction lets me deal with the deepest and most intimate truths, to create characters who talk on the most reflective and philo- sophical level about these huge issues. If I was an historian, I’d be dealing with the facts of history, and wouldn’t be able to interpret them through the lens of human emotions. That’s why I’m a storyteller.’ Indeed, if there’s one word that describes Zimler best, it’s passion. He’s pas- sionate about what he’s doing, passionate to meet and please his readers, passionate that the forgotten Jews of Portugal should be remembered, passion- ate about many things. As with most seemingly overnight sen- sations, Zimler has had to work long and hard for the fame he now enjoys. Born in New York, he graduated with a master’s degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for years before meeting his partner, with whom he now lives in Portugal. ‘Living in Portugal has, in many ways, contributed to my abil- ity to become a fiction writer,’ he says. ‘Having lived for a large part of my life in America, when I went to live with my partner in Portugal, it was for many years like living in a fantasy world: every experience was a new experience, every place held a magic and a mystique which wasn’t there in my birthplace. So when I became a novelist, it was as if I was still inhabiting a magical world. ‘Writing a novel is like inventing a parallel universe.While I’m creating the plot lines, the sub-plots, the characters and the structures, I live during the day in a world of my imagination, a world which no longer exists, the world of historical Portugal. I have one foot set firmly in that camp, and I inhabit it as though it was real. But then, at the end of the day, when I pack away my writing and become a gardener and a cook and tidy the house and share my experiences with my partner, I have a foot firmly in another universe, this one inhabited by people who are real and who interact with me. It’s very odd, the sort of thing that only writers – and the totally insane – can appreciate.’ With the publication of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon , Richard Zimler’s life changed in many ways. Suddenly he was thrust into a limelight where people he’d never met knew a lot about him through his writing, and engaged him in conversations at literary events. He travelled widely throughout Europe promoting and publicising his books, remaining stunned whenever he entered a lecture hall and found the room packed with admiring fans. His books are rich in texture and knowledge, and written with subtle style and remarkable erudition.Although mysteries and thrillers, they could just as easily be course books set by educational institutions for the history of Judeo-Christian Europe from the beginning of the Modern Age. The Last Kabbalist was warmly received in Europe and Australasia, but Zimler found it difficult to interest a publisher in America, most of whom said that it was too narrow a subject matter, or too erudite, or too something. ‘I got the usual rejection letters from over 20 publishers; it was only because of the success of the book in Europe that an American publisher picked up Last Kabbalist, and it became a success [there],’ he says. The concept for The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon took shape when Richard Zimler was in Istanbul researching Sephardic poetry. He discovered a set of nine leather- bound manuscripts in a small cylindrical chest, which was used by Sephardic Jews as a housing for the Jewish Law, the Torah. Written in an unusual square Hebraic script, the language wasn’t Hebrew, but a phoneti- cally written ancient Portuguese transcribed into the letters of the Old Testament. From there, Zimler built his intricate and careful story about the author of the manuscripts, Benekiah Zarco, a 16th century scribe and student of the her meneutic work of Jewish mysticism known as the Kabbala. His subsequent novel, Hunting Midnight, begins in 19th century Portugal before moving to Dickensian Britain and then into antebellum America. In this book we meet one of the most memorable creations in recent literature, a ‘wee dark- skinned man’ called Midnight, a freed slave and hunter and healer who is a Bushman brought over from South Africa by the hero’s wine-merchant father. Again, as in Last Kabbalist, Zimler gives us a huge canvas on which to draw our portraits of his characters. But despite the rich melting pot of identities that peoples Hunting Midnight , it is Midnight himself who is most memorable. ‘I heard the lan- guage and stories of the Bushmen of South Africa and I was absolutely mesmerised by them,’ Zimler recounts. ‘Genetically, the Bushmen of South Africa are our original people; they are the purest and earliest human beings. Every man, woman and child who walks the Earth is derived from the Bushman.Their lifestyle has hardly altered in the millennia since humanity evolved from Africa, and so the Bushmen’s stories, their legends, and the way they think has profound consequences for all of us. That’s why I wanted to bring the Bushman, through Midnight, before the public.’ Richard Zimler is a writer who will not be changed by his ‘overnight’ fame. For him, the ideal schedule is to write, tend to his garden, cook delicious Portuguese food, and then write some more. The Spectator may have described him as an American Umberto Eco, but I prefer to think of him as a modern day Voltaire … or possibly even as Candide. Richard Zimler’s third novel in the series, Guardian of the Dawn, will be published in April, 2005.
December January 2005