Many books have attempted to pull off the remarkable trick that Umberto Eco achieved so memorably in The Name of the Rose: embedding a highly compulsive historical thriller within the context of a serious literary novel. Richard Zimler’s The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was an intriguing contribution to this fascinating sub-genre. Set among Jewish communities living clandestinely in Lisbon in the 16th century, Zimler began his narrative with Abraham Zarco found dead with a naked girl by his side. Zarco is a renowned Kabbalist, a practitioner of the arcane mysteries of the Jewish tradition at a time when the Jews of Lisbon were forced to convert to Christianity. That book functioned principally as a compelling and atmospheric thriller, and was also a stinging study of intolerance, couched in prose of elegance and gritty strength that overcame some familiar elements.
The Warsaw Anagrams shares some elements with earlier book, but is essentially different territory. In 1940, the Nazis have sealed thousands of Jews inside a restricted area of the Polish capital. The aging psychiatrist Erik Cohen is forced to move into a cramped apartment with his niece and nine-year-old nephew Adam. But Adam disappears, and his body is later found in the barbed wire of the ghetto, his leg severed. Subsequently, a young girl’s body is found, the hand removed. The elderly Erik is obliged to confront evil in the heart of Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Zimler’s canny utilisation here of a protagonist far removed from the vigorous heroes of most fiction is a masterstroke, and adds a new dimension to a novel that incorporates thoughtfulness and the tragedy of history into the exigencies of a mesmerising thriller-oriented narrative.
The Warsaw Anagrams is published by Corsair