Guardian of the Dawn
by Richard Zimler
Published by Delta
403 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Richard Zimler has always shown an interest in the dark corners of the soul. Two of his books (Unholy Ghosts and The Angelic Darkness) deal with questions of sexuality, and a forthcoming book (The Search for Sana) focuses on the current troubles in the Middle East. But Zimler, a journalism professor based in Portugal, is best known for his two novels -- The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and Hunting Midnight (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 7-8/03) -- that follow the struggles of the fictional Zarco family, a Portuguese-Jewish clan. With the new third book in the Zarco series, Guardian of the Dawn, Zimler picks up his main themes once more: intolerance, compassion and betrayal.
All of the Zarco stories take place during times of violent upheaval: the 1506 Lisbon massacre of Jews in The Last Kabbalist; Napoleon's invasion of Portugal in Midnight; and in Guardian the arrival, in the late 1500s, of the Portuguese Inquisition in the Indian colony of Goa, a spice-trading center. Zimler's Goan branch of the Zarco family has fled Portugal but sustained the artistic traditions of its forebears, members working as illuminators for a local sultan. The narrator, the half-Jewish, half-Indian Tiago Zarco, and his sister, Sofia, grow up in a lush idyll, reared by an affectionate father and adoring cook. But for Zimler, empire is never salutary, and Jews are never safe. Tiago is barely a man before his world crumbles around him.
His father is arrested by the Inquisition and dies in prison; Tiago himself is incarcerated for years, imprisoned variously in India, Brazil and Portugal. With his innocence and youth gone, Tiago turns to revenge, and the suspense of Guardian of the Dawn comes from a single question: Who betrayed the Zarcos to the Inquisition?
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was a tightly wound novel of cat-and-mouse, its scampering characters trying both to solve a murder and evade getting murdered themselves. Guardian of the Dawn, on the other hand, is cast in the same mold as Hunting Midnight: an epic memoir that sweeps the globe, telling the bittersweet life story of its narrator. With Guardian, Zimler also abandons the optimistic endings of his first two Zarco novels in favor of a bleak conclusion, a sort of morality tale about the perils of hot recklessness and cold revenge.
His obvious model, in plot and ambition, is the Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo. But the Count's escape and revenge -- along with the calcification of his soul -- have always felt both wickedly satisfying and profoundly tragic. Zimler's efforts, while worthy, are merely entertaining and melancholy.
Guardian of the Dawn opens in the middle of its story, with Tiago trapped in a stone prison cell, and quickly proceeds both forward and backward, with Tiago's efforts at escape and retribution punctuated by lengthy flashbacks. The book is a running personal commentary of regret and foreboding, and not a scene goes by without a few words of emotional analysis from Tiago:
Nupi always put Sofia and me in her winding tales. When I was much older, I realized it was because she wanted to make sure that we survived my mother's death intact, that our lives -- and stories -- would continue into the future.
Sometimes this is lyrical, but more often it feels fulsome. Zimler is a master plot-weaver, relying on long-delayed revelations and tricky surprises to keep the engine going; three-fourths of the way through Guardian of the Dawn, the book finally heads into its revenge phase and picks up steam. But his characters aren't strong enough to steer.
Early on, Zimler had set up Tiago's cousin, Wadi, and his aunt, Maria, as obvious villains, but he doesn't develop their personalities enough to make them into believable schemers. (An undercurrent of sexual tension between Tiago and Wadi, for example, is mentioned by Tiago but never convincingly depicted by Zimler.) Many of the characters Tiago later snares in his net of vengeance are introduced so briefly that there's no time to despise or pity them. On the other hand, Zimler spends so much time showing Tiago's love for the young women in his life -- his sister, Sofia, and his Hindu lover, Tejal -- that it feels like an insult when they drop out of the book part way through.
Zimler clearly harbors a love for exotic eras and locales, evidenced by his careful research into local architecture, weather, foods and smells. He's also fascinated by the myriad sufferings of humanity, and the versatile ways people have managed to survive. But he has yet to come up with characters who truly make us feel that we've lived their lives with them. | July 2005
Caroline Cummins is a contributing editor of January Magazine.