Richard Zimler’s new novel embraces life

So many history books and novels have been written about the Holocaust, and its survivors, it would be difficult to count them all. It might seem tempting to ask ‘why write another one?’ Jewish-American writer Richard Zimler’s latest novel The Incandescent Threads offers two very different answers, one literary and the other historical, which will appeal not only to fans of Zimler’s Sephardic Cycle – The Incandescent Threads is the fifth book in the series about the descendants of the Jewish-Portuguese Zarcos family – but equally to followers of geopolitics.

The publication of The Incandescent Threads is timely. Seventy one years after entry into effect of the United Nations Genocide Convention, intended to prevent and punish the crime of genocide, this crime against humanity is still perpetrated in different parts of the globe: abuses against Uyghurs in China and, at the very least, genocidal intent in Ukraine following this year’s invasion by Russia, are two examples among many. In Russia the Jewish community is increasingly concerned its members may be targeted under the climate of intolerance cynically stoked by the Putin regime. An eighth of the community has left Russia in 2022, to begin new lives in other countries.

Zimler is an incisive story teller who sweeps us up in an engaging dance to the music of time. I read the almost 500 pages of The Incandescent Threads - published by Parthian in the UK - over a single weekend.

Resilience is a central tenet of the book. Survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and their descendants, Zimler’s characters never completely collapse beneath the burdens of their terrible past. Although they can never forget this past, they manage to rebuild their lives, relocating in other parts of the world, such as New York or Montreal, to create businesses, make music or love, and forge deep enduring friendships. Zimler reminds us with sentiment that the wealth of friendship can often be the most satisfying form of riches: «I love you beyond the edge of the world,» a character says. In the novel love transcends time and territory.

The Incandescent Threads is a great stew of a tale, its ingredients simmering away like Cholent. Timelines disappear into the depths of the literary pot, as we zig-zag back and forth between the Warsaw Ghetto, during World War II, and North America in the twenty-first century. Narrators pass the baton of generational transmission to another relative, the elderly are reintroduced as children, and a young girl killed in Treblinka reappears as a ghost. As in the earlier books of the Sephardic Cycle, Zimler liberally sprinkles Jewish mysticism and Kabbalism, and the ‘incandescent threads’ of the title link people across centuries and the diaspora, filaments of cause and effect.

One of the novel’s central characters, Shelly, looks back and reflects, «everyone died in the camps except my cousin Benni.» After the war, Shelly returns to Warsaw, which has exchanged Nazi occupation for occupation by the Russians, to search for Benni, who had fled Warsaw rolled in a rug, and for any other members of the family who may have survived. An American official offers chilling assistance: «if you want, I can tell you what transport to Treblinka some of the people on your lists were on.» Shelly eventually tracks down Benni, who has survived against all odds, living in hiding with an elderly Polish piano teacher. In a defiant reference to Hitler’s 1,000 year Reich we are told, «Bach and Beethoven will last a thousand years.» Shelly had vowed «if he ever survived the war, he would find love anywhere and any how it came to him.»

In Zimler’s hands Shelly’s putz becomes a tool for sexual diversity. Zimler is refreshingly open to discussing sexuality and, instead of making us tip toe out of the room, because it’s all too familiar, we stand there and watch with a big grin.

Zimler writes about the generational pain of the Holocaust through a life-embracing lens of humanity, humour and sexuality. He also raises a number of important questions: how do we resemble our parents and how do we differ from them? How can we come to terms with the past? At different moments of the book a character brings out a bottle of one of Portugal’s distinctive wines to celebrate. In The Incandescent Threads, Zimler, who has lived for many years in Porto, toasts Jewishness and life enjoyed.