Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Simple Question and The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Question time first (and then an actual review!).

The deadline for the next bookworms carnival is fast approaching. Book Nut's theme is classics, and she's told me that the submissions can be from the beginning of July on. Since I read nine classics for the Summer Reading Challenge, this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma:
should I choose
my post on Emma, which is more personal, but talks about an author everyone knows of,
my post on Cousin Bette and Les Liasons Dangereuses, which is more literary (I use that term broadly), but perhaps a bit dull,
or my post on Candide, The Eustace Diamonds, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, which is quite superficial, but includes two awesome classics that don't get discussed that much?

I just don't know, and I have to decide by Friday. Input would be welcome! (and yes, I'm aware I'm probably taking this too seriously, but I have an indecisive streak as wide as an interstate running through me)

And now, on to a discussion of a real, live book.

I read The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler as part of my personal Reading Across Borders challenge, the sequel. I finished it some time ago, but I wasn't really sure how I felt about it, so I decided to give it time to settle.

Low and behold, I still don't know how I feel about it.

I first heard of it at the Amazon "Grownup School" feature, which asks famous authors for ten book recommendations in a field related to their own. (btw, if you've never checked it out, you ought to fix that. run on over. I'll be waiting) It was recommended as "a murder mystery set in the 16th century during a Christian purge of the Jewish faithful in Lisbon. It's absorbing, full of suspense, and not a little gory in parts but it is also well researched and you can learn a lot whilst being entertained."

Let's examine those claims. First of all, the gore. It's definitely there; Zimler doesn't pull his punches when describing the massacre that occurred. Let me offer a representation of the graphic passages in the first half of this book :
I stared at the [severed] woman's head. Her eyes were not vacant. What then? Recoiling from the world? Taking back the cask now offered me, a shiver twisted through my chest as if made by a fleeing spirit. The bearded man held the dangling head up, licked her cheek twice as if savoring the sweat of a lover. Opening the draw string of his pants, he allowed the filth of his uncircumcised pen*s to unsheathe into the air. The woman's black mouth was pried open by fingers cracked with dirt. To his waist she was held. He began to do something unspeakable. The other watched while pressing himself with the palm of his hand. I dated not close my eyes, but I turned away. When his grunting had finished, he laced his pants together and said, "Be careful where you go. People are being mistaken for Jews!"
Definitely not for the squeamish. Oddly, perhaps, I found this graphic writing to be one of the book's strengths; the reader isn't allowed to politely look away from the atrocities. Zimler really brings the horror and terror and profound evil of it all to the forefront.

So, the book was gorey. But was it also "suspenceful" and "absorbing"? Honestly, not really. Reading this and The Book Thief at the same time was interesting; they both deal with genocides against Jews but in very different ways. I think that the stunning brilliance of The Book Thief has quite a bit to do with my hesitations about The Last Kabbalist: almost any book would pall in comparison. Zusak spends the book making the reader fall in love with both the actual narrator (go Death!) and the pseudo-narrator (Liesl); this empathy is essential to the story. Zimler, on the other hand, makes an adolescent boy the first-person narrator of his tale. And the kid is so self-important and whiny (although perhaps the whining may be excused since he's facing genocide), it really alienates the reader. At least, it alienated this reader. So, while I wanted the murder mystery to be solved, I also couldn't bring myself to pick the book up for long stretches of time. This made it slow going.

On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the way that Zimler incorporated Kabbala into the book; I know the bare outline of the philosophy, and it was fascinating to see how the narrator (when his Kabbala overtook his whining) viewed the world through it. Of course, I can't find any passages now that I want to share them with you. However, I think that it's the incorporation of Kabbala into the book that makes some compare this to Eco's The Name of the Rose. While I can see a general similarity, I would call them second cousins more than long-lost brothers. Eco's control of language, which allows him to just play in his novels, certainly isn't present in Zimler's work. At least, not in this, his first novel.

In the end, I'm still torn about whether to give The Last Kabbalist two stars or four. In terms of themes, and descriptions, it's above average. However, its readability and characters are below. I compromised and gave it three, but that's not really accurate. This book is anything but average.

Favourite Passages:
It was the first time either of us had signalled the verb "to kill" in the first person. We realized our language of gestures had to change to keep up with this new, Old Christian century. (87)

Do you know what it means to look at a headless baby sitting in a shovel? It is as if all thelnaguages in the world have been forgotten, as if all the books ever written have been given up to dust. ANd that you are glad of it. Because such people as we have no right to speak or write or leave any trace for history. (87-8)


Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

I like your Candide, et al post. Submit that one! :)


Dewey said...

Maybe you could check first with Melissa, in case someone has already submitted an Austen book (seems likely!) and that way you'd at least narrow it down.

Eva said...

Heather, thanks for the vote!

Dewey, that's a good idea. :) So obvious, lol.