Like the proverbial prophet, writer Richard Zimler found a warm reception everywhere except in his own country. One American publisher after another rejected his manuscript. While U.S. editors thought the murder mystery set in 16th-century Lisbon was interesting and well-written, they concluded that it wouldn’t sell. Even after the book was translated and published in Portugal -- and jumped to the top of the bestseller list within a month -- he couldn’t get his New York agent to return phone calls.
So Zimler decided to approach other foreign publishers himself. He went to Paris, caught editors on the fly and left the manuscript with receptionists. The French editors loved the book, and a small bidding war ensued. Flammarion won; and, like a row of dominoes, Zimler soon secured contracts with publishers in Germany (Rowohlt), Italy (Mondadori), Brazil (Companhia das Letras), Spain (Edhasa) and England (Arcadia).
On the strength of this success, Zimler signed with a new American agent. Finally, five years after New York literati had first rejected the manuscript, Overlook Press released The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon in May. By then, it was a bestseller in Brazil and Italy.
“I do think that what happened with my book highlights some weaknesses in American publishing,” says Zimler, MA ’82. “When a book comes along that doesn’t fit a formula, the publishing people simply don’t know what to do with it. It’s like an object from another planet. And so they reject it.”
Certainly, The Last Kabbalist is not easily pigeonholed for chainstore marketing. It is at once thriller, historical novel and meditation on death, crime and intolerance. More than that, it delves into kabbalah, an esoteric offshoot of Judaism that centers on a mystical interpretation of Scripture.
The story takes place during the 1506 Lisbon Massacre, when Jews were blamed for both the plague and the drought that afflicted the city. Some 2,000 citizens of Jewish ancestry, who had already been forcibly converted to Christianity, were dragged from their homes, murdered, then burned in the capital’s central square. Against this backdrop, a fictional young Jewish manuscript illustrator, Berekiah Zarco, tries to find the killer of his beloved uncle and mentor, a prominent kabbalist.
The plot depends on -- and is obscured by -- kabbalistic symbols and hidden meanings. Kabbalists perceive a divine presence in all earthly things, and Zarco’s spiritual interpretation of events is as important as solving the murder. Zimler’s work echoes kabbalah in another way. Kabbalah’s major text is the Zohar, a 13th-century mystical interpretation of the Torah -- in novel form.
“In kabbalah, all books can be read on four levels: literal, allegorical, ethical and mystical,” Zimler says. “I wanted to try to do something similar in my novel.”
The 42-year-old author got his inspiration for The Last Kabbalist nine years ago while browsing through his mother’s bookshelves in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. There he found a book chronicling 2,000 years of Hebrew manuscript illumination. Several of the featured folios came from Portugal, a country he had visited several times -- in fact, he and his partner had been discussing moving there. He flashed on the idea of a fictional Jewish manuscript illustrator in Renaissance Lisbon.
Zimler had studied comparative religion and music at Duke and completed a master’s in communication at Stanford. From 1983 to 1987, he edited the in-house magazine of McKesson Corp. in San Francisco, then turned to freelance journalism. He went on to publish short fiction in American and British magazines, including London Magazine and Sunk Island Review, and in the literary journals, Yellow Silk and Puerto del Sol. But he had never completed a novel. “I had tried, but they all ended up in drawers,” he says. “Then I turned to this novel, and it completely absorbed me.”
Determined to be historically and philosophically accurate, Zimler began researching Portuguese history and Jewish tradition at UC-Berkeley. A secular Jew who says his religious life consists of “bar mitzvahs and festivals,” he became fascinated by kabbalah’s mysticism and started to weave that into his novel.
A year later, in 1990, Zimler moved to Portugal. He took a job teaching journalism at the University of Porto and spent another year researching and then two years writing The Last Kabbalist. When his New York literary agent had no success with American publishers from 1993 to 1995, Zimler turned to some Portuguese friends. Did they know of any Portuguese editors who could read a manuscript in English? Two friends mentioned the same editor, so Zimler sent her the manuscript. Two months later, the Lisbon publisher Quetzel Editores acquired the book, translated it and published it in April 1996.
Portuguese reviewers raved about The Last Kabbalist, and Zimler became something of a celebrity. “It does feel great being vindicated, knowing that all those people who thought the book couldn’t sell were simply wrong,” Zimler says. “The big lesson I draw from this is that if you’ve worked really hard on a project, and you love it and still believe in it after it’s been pummeled by editors, just keep sending it out.”
While the publicity and TV appearances abroad have been heady stuff, Zimler hasn’t lost perspective on the American market. The four printings and 10,000 copies sold in Portugal translate to bestseller status there but would be a modest achievement here. Early U.S. sales figures are not yet available, but a New York Times writer called the book “gripping” and “richly written.”
Zimler’s second book, Unholy Ghosts, was published by GMP Publishers of London in November 1996 and is currently on sale in both the United States and England. His next novel, The Angelic Darkness, a contemporary story about a San Francisco landlord, was released by his Lisbon publisher in May and will appear in Brazil next year. He is currently writing a book about a man forced to return to Portugal after a 30-year absence.
The delayed entry of his first novel into the U.S. market could work to Zimler’s advantage. There is a growing interest in spirituality and mysticism, and several recent books on kabbalah have done well. A latter-day kabbalah movement -- the Wall Street Journal called it “Kabbalah Lite” -- is burgeoning, with kabbalah learning centers sprouting across the country and celebrities from Madonna to Roseanne professing their conversion. All this can only help the prospects of a book called The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.
Read a September 2010 update on this story.
Heather Millar, ’85, is a freelance writer in Pacific Grove, Calif.