Richard Zimler: Midnight's Jewish children

Richard Zimler's first novel, about the Sephardic Jewish diaspora, was a cult bestseller. On a tour of Oporto, he tells Michael Eaude about the secrets and lies behind his new work
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You need energy and a long stride to criss-cross the steep, cobbled streets of Oporto. Tall and loose-limbed, like the basketball player he was, Richard Zimler is showing us round his adopted city, where the events of the first half of his new novel, Hunting Midnight (Constable, £8.99), occurred two centuries ago.

"The city has changed little since 1800, so you still often get the same views, streets and even the same houses," he says. The views are sensational, for Oporto tumbles down the flanks of a hill to the ravine of the river Douro - blue today in the sun. Its churches with tiled façades perch on bare rock; palms stretch up above twisted alleys; ochre paint peels from balconies set idiosyncratically at differing heights from those in the adjoining houses.

In what was the Jewish quarter - no Jews remain, although maybe 50 per cent of the Portuguese have Jewish ancestry - we find a door open and intrude down a long corridor, with the numbers painted crudely on the doors of the flats on each side. You can smell the damp. The walls bulge like grey bellies, and wood battens poke through the plaster. "Everything is coming loose, but nothing seems to fall down," my host grins optimistically. We peer out the back into a garden full of junk with a small orange tree laden with fruit. "The city of Oporto," Zimler explains, "is set up as a kind of secret, with gloomy granite buildings hiding secret gardens".

Hunting Midnight is a novel of secrets. The greatest is that the Jews have to live as "New Christians", their religion hidden, after the ravages of the Inquisition. Benjamin, the Jewish scholar, says in one of the memorable phrases that bejewel Zimler's fast-moving, direct prose: "Secrets are not like mortal men - they can remain dangerous even a hundred years."

The novel has the mythic resonance these words suggest. It describes an epic quest, in which the hero John finds himself by travelling halfway round the world and overcoming multiple obstacles to rescue his beloved friend, the freed slave Midnight. It is no easy book to classify. "It's not a love story, morality play, a tragedy or a comedy, but it contains all these elements," says the author. Perhaps the best way to define it is as a gripping adventure story, which can also be read at deeper levels.

The first half of Hunting Midnight is an enthralling evocation of childhood. These are the best pages in all Zimler's writing. "I really don't know why," he says. "I could just see the characters in these streets so clearly." Zimler has this spark of genius, which critics can't explain but readers recognise, and which every novelist desires but few achieve. He can visualise his complex characters so roundly that they walk off the page. They take on their own independent existence.

In Hunting Midnight, John, the pampered only child of a Portuguese mother and Scottish father, finds intense friendship with Violeta and Daniel, two street kids. The three grasp young life joyfully and believe they can mould it to their desires. Then, too young, John learns loss and guilt, as Violeta's diamond-bright personality is crushed by rape within the family and he is unable to save Daniel from his fate. "If there's an influence here, it's Mark Twain," says Zimler. "Not stylistically, but because he was the first in the American tradition to write about children seriously, not as idealised creatures or as little adults, but as themselves."

Though Zimler's historical fiction is not autobiographical, John is like the author in one key respect: "I tend to write my best when I am driven by anger and a desire for justice." From the very start, in his admiration of Daniel's brave defence of an old washer-woman attacked in the street, John is driven forward by his need to right wrongs. "I do get this well of emotion that I have to tell the story. People have to know that Midnight's people were enslaved and killed, people have to know that the Inquisition destroyed all the openness in Portuguese society for 250 years, so I do get this urgency."

This need to tell is the reason for the fearsome violence in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which narrates the massacre of 2,000 Jews in 1506. Zimler's violence is actually refreshing, in that it is very hard to read. It's not at all gratuitous. "In America it's OK to make a Sylvester Stallone movie with 250 Vietnamese dead. That's sanitised. A movie like that can get a PG 13 rating. But if you have real drama of people mourning the dead, not recovering from rape, not being able to go on with their lives, then Americans don't want to see it. It's too real. Violence portrayed should be real. It should disturb people."

Despite this well of emotion, Zimler's writing is very controlled. It serves the story. Indeed, the smooth, calm flow of his prose highlights effectively the ferocity of his themes. "Despite my anger, when I'm writing, I realise that my first job is to tell a story."

On our tour of Oporto, Zimler leads us down what he calls a "secret path": uneven little-used steps running outside the old city walls. Suddenly, the path bursts out onto the Douro waterfront, where Daniel plunged despairing into the swirling water and, for all his efforts, John could not pull him out. We sit at a restaurant table in the February sun.

Zimler's cheek-bones are high, his chin long with a devilish goatee. His elastic face twists in concentration as he seeks the right word and his arms fly as he talks with the passion that pushes forward the narrative of his books. Though serious, he is easy to be with. He wears a beret placed playfully to one side of his head. When we walk, he takes us warmly by the arm.

I had assumed Hunting Midnight's imaginative source was Oporto, a tribute to its lost Jews, as Last Kabbalist was to Lisbon's. But no. The novel originally came to him, Zimler explains, when he picked up a book about the Kalahari Bushmen on holiday in Austria years before. "What fascinated me about the Bushmen was their stories. I've always been attracted to mythology. When I was very young, I realised that these myths were not necessarily about a time long ago far distant from my life, but were actually about me." The image that came to haunt Zimler, and started him on his novel, was of a Bushman dressed in an elegant waistcoat and nice shoes with a European family.

Zimler explains the role of myth in his story: "My view is that I write very realistically. However, not everything in human consciousness is rational. If you leave that out, you're leaving out quite a bit of experience... I mean, you can fall in love with someone and move half-way round the world and when you get there, you find it's not the person you thought. Rationally no one would do that, but people do it all the time. Unless you talk about people's fantasies, dreams, desires and visions, the realism is very limited."

The second part of Hunting Midnight moves from Oporto to New York and a plantation near Charleston. Zimler boldly introduces a second narrative voice, that of the young slave Morri. Her struggle for freedom and John's hunt for Midnight intertwine. Just as, earlier, Zimler showed Oporto through John's eyes; so now he portrays the plantation through Morri's - a child not just forced to grow up too quick, but born in Hell.

"I wanted to have Morri tell her own story. The irony, of course, is that I am writing it for her, but that's my job. History was written by the victors. If they caught people leading a revolt, they made a show of the hanging. They just hushed up any successful revolt, of course." He creates a clear parallel between slavery and the persecution of the Jews, but then gives this a sharp twist: some of Charleston's Jews thought they could blend in to Southern white society by themselves becoming slave-owners. Zimler does not deal in easy answers.

As we walk round Oporto, Zimler is greeted by lots of people. He speaks a fluent Portuguese. "Everyone ought to learn another language," he says. "It helps my English so much and it's the best mind-expanding drug there is, knowing another culture." We end our tour by crossing the Douro to the opposite bank, where the port-wine warehouses signal their wealth with giant illuminated signs. Moored in front are the restored gondolas that were once poled upriver to bring the wine barrels back down from the vineyards. Beyond the gondolas, looking back across the water, we see Oporto climbing its hills. As we walk along the bank, the differing heights opposite mean the perspective constantly changes, like a moving picture.

Zimler's adopted city no longer feels a remote outpost of Europe. Oporto is the hub of Hunting Midnight's world leading out to London, New York, Charleston and South Africa. Richard Zimler describes the world as it is, harsh and cruel. Then he shows us its beauty and how we can change and grow. It is the best sort of political novel, one that is accessible and does not preach. "Thank you," he says when I tell him my view. As well as passionate, he is exceedingly courteous.

Biography: Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler was born on Long Island on the first day of 1956. A journalist in San Francisco in the 1980s, he moved to Oporto in Portugal for a fresh start in 1990. He still lives there with his partner Alex, on the mild far west coast of Europe. His fourth novel, out this month, is Hunting Midnight (Constable, £8.99). It is the second in a cycle of novels about the Sephardic Jewish diaspora. The first, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1998), sold more than 40,000 copies in the UK. His other two novels are set in contemporary Portugal (Unholy Ghosts, 1996) and San Francisco (The Angelic Darkness, 1999).