Sometimes, you read a book and it ignites a fire in your mind.
The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler is one such book.
A tale of love, principle, honour and courage, The Seventh Gate is set in 1930’s Berlin during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. The narrator Sophie is a 14-year old Christian German girl, daughter of a scientist with communist sympathies, who switches sides and joins the Nazi Party. Her mother is a withdrawn and demanding housewife. Sophie’s younger brother Hansi shows signs of autism, living in his own universe. He is called a distant child by those who love him and a feebleminded embarrassment for National Socialists in his country. With her childhood friend- turned boyfriend, Sophie is slowly becoming a sexually-aware young woman. When the boyfriend, too, becomes a Nazi, she excuses the men in her life for wanting to protect their families and advance their careers.
Sophie’s life changes when she meets a Jewish neighbour and his circle of friends. The neighbour, Isaac Zarco is a businessman with a scholarly interest in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah. He is also the leading figure in an anti-Nazi resistance group the Ring. Most of the activists are Jews, ex-circus performers with deformities and disabilities. It is not just their Jewish identity and activism that turn them into targets for the Nazis. To purify the German bloodline, Nazis begin involuntary sterilization of the physically and mentally disabled.
Through her friendship with Isaac and his close circle, Sophie becomes involved with the Ring. In her increasingly intimate relationship with Isaac, she begins to learn about a long-lost 16th century manuscript Isaac discovered in an Istanbul cellar written by one of his ancestors, a Portuguese Kabbalist named Berekiah Zarco. In a country where cruelty, brutality and oppression are on the rise at a frightening speed, Isaac is convinced that a prophecy made by his ancestor that the world would be reduced to chaos is about to come true. Signs come one after another, from the 1938 pogrom of Kristallnacht and the annexation of Austria to the pact between Hitler and Stalin one year later.
Like his other highly-acclaimed novels, Richard Zimler’s The Seventh Gate is a historical literary mystery. I do not want to give away too many details which may spoil it when you read it. Enough to say that it is a remarkable novel for its detail and historical accuracy and a significant part takes place in Istanbul.
The Seventh Gate had a profound effect on me with its portrayal of how the Nazi ideology permeated German society and politics. Of course, there was an enormous amount of pressure, coercion, violence and propaganda, but there was also considerable support for Hitler’s strong leadership style, economic programme, promise of making the country powerful abroad, return to traditional values and social conservatism.
Zimler’s novel hit me with its description of conformity and widespread passive consent to increasing brutality among people and the media in pre-World War II Germany. It made me realize once more how by remaining indifferent, refusing to see and hear injustices, turning a blind eye to lawlessness and corruption, German society became a partner in crime.
This is not my first introduction to Richard Zimler’s work. I first met him in in 2004 when I chaired a literary event in London’s Jewish Book Week, launching Zimler’s novel Hunting Midnight and another prominent novelist and writer Moris Farhi’s Young Turk. You can see the transcript of the event here: http://www.jewishbookweek.com/sites/default/files/Moris%20Farhi%2C%20Richard%20Zimler%20Firdevs%20Robinson%2029.02.04.pdf
The Seventh Gate is the fourth novel in a series of books on a Sephardic theme. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, about a Portuguese Jewish family, the Zarcos, was translated into several languages including Turkish and became a best seller. Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn and The Seventh Gate are about different branches and periods in of the Zarco family.
His book Warsaw Anagrams, also translated and published in Turkish, is another murder mystery set in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and 1941 Poland. It is a horrifying account of life for more than 400 thousand people confined within an area of a square mile. Despite its horrific subject matter, it is full of suspense, humour and kindness, leaving the reader with a strong hope that there is still hope for humanity.
As well as being a prolific best-selling novelist, Richard Zimler is a formidable journalist and intellectual. He worked as a journalist in the USA, the country of his birth and he taught journalism for sixteen years in Portugal, where he now lives.
He has visited Turkey on many occasions. When I asked him what he thought of what is going on in Turkey now, he told me that he has many friends in the country and all of them are in favour of freedom of speech and assembly, equality for women, religious tolerance and gay rights.
“Most of them would define themselves as Moslem, but they firmly believe that their government should be completely secular. More and more, they see themselves backed into a corner by Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian, Islamic, corrupt, heavy-handed and backward-looking government. To someone like me – a non-specialist in Turkish affairs living two thousand kilometres away – it often seems as if Turkey has become the latest front line in an ongoing conflict between democratic (secular) and authoritarian (religious) values. It is my fervent hope that the Turkish people will continue to fight for their civil rights – in the courts and in the national legislature, and through peaceful street protests – and that they will be able to elect a more democratically oriented government in the very near future” he said.
After The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight and Warsaw Anagrams, I hope his publishers Inkilap will soon get The Seventh Gate translated and published in Turkey.
Right now, we desperately need to learn from history. Richard Zimler’s well-researched, well- written and compelling novels will help us to look back in order to see today’s world more clearly.
Richard Zimler’s website: http://www.zimler.com/conteudo.php?m=12
This post is also available in: Turkish