In his novels, Richard Zimler, who is best known for The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, has been chronicling Jewish history throughout the ages and from all corners of the world for many years. His latest offering is an unusual, deeply touching retelling of the gospel. At its centre, Zimler places Lazarus and allows him to tell the story in a long letter to his grandson: “Picture me endeavouring to tell you matters that will never be able to fit easily or comfortably on a roll of papyrus.”
Lazarus, a widower and a father of two, lives with his sisters and is a tile maker commissioned to design symbolic mosaics for affluent citizens of Galilee. He is friends with the man whom most readers will know as Jesus of Nazareth. It is this relationship that leads Lazarus into danger and tests his faith as well as the people closest to him.
The Gospel According to Lazarus goes back and forth in time, but focuses on the days following Lazarus’s return from the dead. Zimler’s daring recreation of this tale from Lazarus’s perspective is a truly remarkable feat of the imagination and of empathy. The experience is described with sublime sensitivity, as is the unshakable friendship that binds the two main characters of the story. “I have found that most men and women huddle behind their own heartwalls and only rarely peek outside. We spend thirty, forty, fifty years or more not seeing one another”, Lazarus tells his grandson. “But he looked and saw.”
Whether we are believers or not, through Zimler’s fearless storytelling, we are reminded that there are “profound and hidden things in our world” and that fiction, not unlike faith, can bring us closer to understanding our own humanity and the stories that have sustained it for millennia.
The Gospel According to Lazarus
Peter Owen Publishers, 2019
Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.