Life & Culture

Book review: The Incandescent Threads - Mystic hokum or a popular classic?

The latest in author's Sephardic Cycle begins begins by portraying the relationship between a Jewish-American artist and his father, a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw


The Incandescent Threads
By Richard Zimler
Parthian Books £20
Reviewed By David Herman

Born and brought up in America, Richard Zimler later moved to Portugal where he has lived ever since.

The novel that made his name, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, was published in 1996. Since then, he has published almost a dozen novels, all with intriguing titles like The Angelic Darkness (1998), The Warsaw Anagrams (2011) and The Gospel According to Lazarus (2019), and all mixing historical drama and esoteric religion.

Now comes The Incandescent Threads, the latest in his Sephardic Cycle. It’s almost 500 pages long and steeped in big issues.

The novel begins with a Jewish-American artist, Eti, short for Ethan, and his relationship with his father, Benjamin (Benni) Zarco, a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw. Benni’s parents were killed in Treblinka but he managed to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Eti is a classic second-generation son, trying to solve the mysteries of his father’s traumatic early life during the Holocaust. Their relationship is full of emotionally charged lines like, “I was there, you weren’t!” but it deepens through the novel until the moving climax.

The third central character is Shelly, Benni’s older cousin, also a Holocaust survivor from Poland. He and Benni formed an intense lifelong friendship in wartime Poland. No one else can understand what they both went through during those years.

The novel moves back and forwards in time between the war and the present. Narrators change and we meet some extraordinary characters, especially Ewa, a Polish gentile piano teacher, who shelters Benni after he escapes from Warsaw, and George (part Jew, part Navajo) who becomes Shelly’s long-time gay partner. The novel moves between a central group of characters, part fugue, part mosaic.

The chapters are uneven, but the best are compelling and powerful.

Zimler’s novel will divide readers almost from the first page. Some will find the religion pure hokum and may find the Holocaust chapters exploitative and sentimental.

Others, though, will be deeply moved by the central story of a Holocaust survivor who loses everything and tries to rebuild his life.

There is clearly a large international audience for this kind of discussion of Jewish mysticism and the kabbalah and many will enjoy the movement back and forward in time, especially if they liked The Hours or Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper.

There isn’t a middle ground. For those who can’t put this novel down, they will rush to read Zimler’s other novels and feel that they have found a contemporary classic.

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