Speaking for the Silenced

On April 19, 1506, a pogrom broke out in Lisbon, Portugal, led by Dominican priests shouting “Death to the Jews!” Rioters following these fanatical churchmen through the city streets ended up murdering some two thousand New Christians, Portuguese Jews who’d been forcibly baptised in a mass conversion nine years earlier. Their bodies were dragged to the main square that is still at the heart of the Portuguese capital – the Rossio – and burnt in two huge pyres. 

I discovered this crime against humanity in 1990, while researching daily life in Lisbon in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, but when I asked my Portuguese friends what they knew about the massacre, they all replied, “What massacre? What are you talking about?”

I soon discovered that the antisemitic riot wasn’t mentioned in Portuguese schoolbooks or even in standard reference works about Portuguese history. Feeling outraged, I decided to make it the background for the novel I was planning about a Jewish manuscript illuminator living in the Portuguese capital. In such ways throughout my life, I have learned that I have a deeply subversive personality; it gives me a sense of accomplishment to write of events that those with economic and political power would prefer to whitewash or forget.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon ended up telling the story of Berekiah Zarco, a bright and studious young New Christian who lives through the Lisbon Massacre of 1506 only to discover that his beloved Uncle Abraham, his spiritual mentor, has been murdered in the family cellar. While beset by grief and despair – and with his childhood friend Farid by his side – Berekiah decides to try to track down the killer and seek revenge. But as a kabbalist interested in the symbolic significance of events, he grows far more interested in what his uncle’s murder and the pogrom mean for his family, the New Christians of Portugal, all of humanity and even for God. Berekiah offers the reader his own interpretation on the last page of the novel and his words give the narrative an unexpected and chilling significance.

By now, the book has been translated into 23 languages and a bestseller in 12 countries, including Portugal, the USA, Great Britain, Italy and Australia. Of course, I’m very pleased that it has achieved commercial success, but I equally value what the novel has taught me: that I cherish the chance to write about people whose voices have been systematically silenced. Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve discovered that writing from the perspective of people who have been persecuted, brutalized and forgotten gives me the energy – the slow burn of anger – that I need to keep me going over the two to three years it takes me to write a novel. It also makes me feel as if I’m fighting on the right side of history, which seems the best possible place to be.

In four of my subsequent novels I’ve written about different branches and generations of the Zarco family that I introduced in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. My aim has been to create what I call my Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent novels – to be read in any order – that explore the lives of men and women in the far-ranging Sephardic diaspora, which ranges from the Brazil and the Caribbean islands all the way to India. The most recent of these works – The Incandescent Threads – will be published in Britain and the USA in July of 2022.