The Torah code

<strong>The Seventh Gate</strong>

Richard Zimler <em>Constable & Robinson, 400pp, £7.99</em>


The Seventh Gate, set in Nazi Germany, is a Kabbalistic Girl's Own detective story. Its narrator is a smart 14-year-old, Sophie, who becomes friendly with her mysterious Jewish neighbour, Isaac Zarco, and is drawn into a web of intrigue. Isaac is a Kabbalist, a Jewish mystic, who sees the looming danger as a fight between good and evil, and attempts to decipher his Kabbalistic texts to avert catastrophe. He is also the head of a secret organisation - The Ring - which is attempting to alert the world to the Nazi threat. When one of their number is arrested and another murdered, Sophie becomes obsessed with solving the mysteries. Her favourite book is Emil and the Detectives and, in homage to do-gooding heroines, she takes to her task with girlish gusto. Her spirit and courage are reminiscent of Philip Pullman's Lyra, who also faced evil of Nazi proportions.

But none of this quite convinces. The novel is divided into seven parts, each representing a stage in the Kabbalistic journey. The symbolism of the Kabbalah, with hidden worlds that only a Jewish mystic and scholar can decode, is a rich source for a writer, and Zimler has already written a number of bestselling novels that draw on its tradition. But in The Seventh Gate, the mystical sleuthing sits uneasily alongside the teen detective story. The two narratives are never integrated. There is also a feeling of bathos as Isaac uses the Kabbalah to make sense of the descent into Nazi barbarity. When he portentously announces, after pray-ing for 48 hours, that: "The stained glass of our world has become so fractured that it cannot sustain its own weight" and, on another occasion, that "this pact between Hitler and Stalin . . . it is the sky descending", one is reminded of the doom-mongering soothsayer in Up Pompeii!. Since the Holocaust remains the ultimate example of evil, any attempt to heighten its significance verges on the banal.

The breezy narrative tone of Sophie also robs the novel of tension - although it's clearly an original attempt at treating a dark subject in a fresh voice. The scenes of Nazi violence are neither moving nor shocking - partly because they are so familiar, but also because Sophie fails to engage as a character. She is meant to be a teenage rebel who sees through the hypocrisy and racism around her. She leads a double life - at once a member of the Young German Maidens, learning how to execute the perfect Hitler salute and a confidante of Isaac's circle of misfits. Her father is a communist who joins the Nazis to save himself and betrays his family, including his autistic son, in the process.

Throughout the novel, Sophie has a sexual relationship with her childhood friend Tonio, who quickly turns out to be a rabid Nazi. We are never given a satisfactory explanation for her tolerance of him, or any sense of inner conflict. Sexual desire, it seems, is the sole motivation. Sophie's sexual appetite is certainly meant to be an expression of her rebellion against family and society - "sex may be the only hope in a dictatorship like ours" - but she is also a stereotype of a sexually liberated female (and an underage one at that for some of the novel). Her exploits involve a great deal of diving under covers and rather too many sub-Lawrentian purple passages: "I love the power I feel when he is in my mouth, that dirt-pure sense of being a girl worshipping an altar older and far more meaningful than Hitler . . ." While love and passion may be blind, when Sophie finally breaks up with Tonio, her explanation for her past behaviour is lame: "I'd convinced myself he was hiding kinder sentiments . . ."

Sophie's detective quest, which drives the narrative, unravels into a shaggy dog story. Isaac, meanwhile, finds the Kabbalistic sign he is searching for, but it is another climax that lacks drama. Isaac's circle of misfits - including dwarves and a giant lady - and Sophie's young autistic brother, Hansi, are inevitably prime targets in the Nazi eugenics programme. Sophie's relationship with her mute brother is one of the more convincing and affecting elements in the novel. There is an unsentimental account of the fate of handicapped children and adults under the Nazis, told in shocking historical detail. It is a moment of profound horror in the novel when the narrative reaches a depth, bringing fact and fiction successfully together, that it sadly fails to do elsewhere.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent