I had the privilege this week of havng dinner with one of my favourite novelists. Richard Zimler is the author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, a historical mystery story about hidden Jews in Lisbon in the 16th century.
It is a celebration of Sephardic Jewish culture and history – humane and full of joy. I read it on holiday a few years ago and it took me completely by surprise. I reviewed the sequel, Hunting Midnight, for the Observer.
Zimler is now producing books faster than I can read them. His latest, The Seventh Gate, is tantalising trailed as “a novel of Berlin, kabbalistic prophecy and double lives”. Who could ask for more?
Meeting Richard made me want to find out more and so I have been reading The Search for Sana, an autobiographical piece about a chance meeting in Australia with a troubled Palestinian dancer. During the course of the narrative he writes about his time as a journalist in Paris in the early 1980s. While there he becomes troubled by the anti-Zionism of the French Left.
In the context of today’s politics, I found the following passage about demonstrations Richard witnessed in Paris in 1982 extremely helpful: “What I remember most from these rallies was the profound disappointment in the Jews that I sensed in the French Leftists. Their voices were so hoarse with outrage that anyone looking on would have guessed that each of them had been personally betrayed by Zionism. I couldn’t understand why they might have felt that way – and why it was they always demonstrated against Israel rather than against far more horrific regimes like China and South Africa – until fifteen years later, when I read Jorge Semprun’s memoir Literature or Life. Then I understood how, for many European intellectuals, the Jews had come to represent the expolited and victimized everywhere.
Supporting them had become the outward sign of one’s firm pledge to fight against evil in all its guises. On page 36 of the English edition, Semprun notes that he created a Jewish friend in one of his novels for precisely this reason. He writes, ‘The Jew – even passive, even resigned – was the intolerable embodiment of the oppressed.’
When I read that, I understood what I hadn’t all those years before, while watching that anti-Zionist rally in Place de la Concorde: that the Israelis, in rejecting the role of passive victim – that most tolerant of traditional Christian representations – had also rejected the terms of friendship with the European Left. If Semprun was right, then they’d broken the tacit pact that said, ‘like me for being brutalized’.”