There are books that remain with you over time, that spark the imagination and echo down the years of your life. I read The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler in the late 1990s around the time I read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco while I was studying Theology at Oxford, which I talked about in episode 12. The themes and characters of those two books still resonate in my own writing, and the idea of faith soaking into the very stones of a place is something that stays with me as I travel for my own book research.
When I visited Lisbon in autumn 2019, I wrote an article about my weekend there and mentioned Richard’s book, so I’m thrilled to be able to share this interview with you today. His books span the history of a Jewish family across the diaspora, as well as historical fiction set in the time of Jesus, and more modern tales of people of faith. Our discussion, like his writing, is both political and religious and hopefully will spark thoughts around your own position, for only by truly listening to others can we formulate what we really think.
Richard Zimler is the multi-award-winning author of 10 novels, as well as writing poetry, short film, children’s books, and song lyrics. Richard is American but lives in Portugal and in 2017, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by the city of Porto.
- Why Richard loves Portugal, from the varied geographic regions to progressive politics
- How difficult times call us to be more honest and authentic
- The influence of Portugal on language and culture worldwide
- The historical research required for a novel set in the time of Jesus
- How places become imbued with emotion and faith
- Transcending historical baggage to write and travel with an open mind
- Writing from the different perspectives of varied characters
You can find Richard Zimler at Zimler.com.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna Penn: Richard Zimler is the multi-award-winning author of 10 novels, as well as writing poetry, short film, children’s books and song lyrics. Richard is American but lives in Portugal. And in 2017 he was awarded the medal of honor by the city of Porto.
Welcome to the show.
Richard Zimler: Thank you for having me. Hello everybody.
Joanna Penn: I was having a little fangirl moment before we started recording. I’m just so thrilled to have you on the show! Clearly you love Portugal.
As an American, tell us why Portugal still inspires you after so many years.
Richard Zimler: It’s my home, first of all. I’ve lived here for 29 years, so most of my friends are here. My life partner is here. We’ve lived together for 40 years. So it really is the center of my world, and I’m glad about that.
I love Portugal. It’s become a better and better place to live, for people visiting and for people who live here. It’s got a lot of pluses.
One would be it’s a small country. We’re not talking about the United States or Brazil, so you can drive from the top to the very bottom in about seven hours.
It’s a varied place. Think about California. We’ve got mountains, very forbidding peaks in the Northeast of the country and what we call the Trás-os-Montes or beyond the mountains.
We’ve got beautiful sandy, long beaches in the South and all along the coast, isolated little mountain top towns, almost like Italy, all stone towns, cobblestones everywhere, little cafes. So, visitors and people who do live here, take advantage of that.
Travel from Lisbon to Porto is about two hours and 40 minutes by train, three hours by car. Those are the two main cities. We go into the countryside quite a lot. We have a house in what’s, what’s called the Minho, a very green province in the north of the country where there’s wine growing.
I love that varied aspect of Portugal. It’s also really great to be here now because it’s become a refuge, in a sense, from right-wing intolerance and bigotry in a lot of European countries and in my homeland, America. Portugal has a progressive government in recent years.
Since 2010, for instance, we’ve had gay marriage. We’ve had medically assisted reproduction for single women, for gay women. We’re moving forward into almost uncharted territory. We have the best, most intelligent drug policy in the world. Small possession and small use of drugs, marijuana, LSD, things like that are all decriminalized. If you have a problem with drugs, you’re an addict. You don’t go into the criminal justice system. You get shifted directly over to health care. And what this has meant in part is that crime is way down.
HIV infections have been lowered by more than 90% and people have come from all over the world to study Portugal’s drug policy because it’s so much more intelligent than the war being led by America and Mexico and the South American countries.
I love living in a progressive country. I love living in a country that’s getting better and easier and giving more options to its people. For instance, half our medical students, half our law students are women now. So we’re moving up in science, and innovation. We’ve just hosted the web summit now, which is this gigantic international event of techies. So it seems to me like it’s a great place to live.
Joanna Penn: I’m so glad you mentioned these things. There really is a cultural, almost an emotional difference between, the US and, let’s put the UK in there as well.
Portugal does actually seem quite an emotionally intelligent place. Would that be a good way to describe it?
Richard Zimler: Yes, we’ve been resistant to the far-right populist politics, which have taken over the UK and America. I’m not really sure why that’s happened. It doesn’t mean that it’ll happen forever. We’ve all got to be vigilant about that.
We have one member of the parliament now who’s from a far-right party, so that’s a worry that they’ve got their foot in the door, but perhaps because Portugal had its revolution only recently in 1974. Before that, it was a dictatorship for almost 50 years. And before that, we had the inquisition for 240 years. So there’s a great resentment here, among a lot of people for governments that want to censor our books and control our lives and tell us what to do in our bedroom.
I think a great many Portuguese don’t want that and are vigilant about that. And they don’t understand America. When the current President was elected, my phone rang off the hook because I can speak Portuguese fluently and I’ve lived here a long time. So all the news channels wanted to interview me about how this could happen, how someone ignorant and racist and xenophobic could get elected.
The Portuguese have a hard time understanding America and Britain too. They just don’t get Boris Johnson. They just can’t see what makes him popular among people. I don’t want to ridicule anyone, but from a distance, he seems incompetent and foolish. And that’s what the Portuguese regard him as.
Joanna Penn: As you mentioned, the modern side of Portugal is this very liberal, tolerant place. But you mentioned the inquisition there and, your book, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which I read many years ago, and re-read recently in preparation for this interview, is set in 1506 during a massacre of Jews in the city by the Catholic inquisition.
And, as I’ve mentioned to you, my husband is Jewish and we stood in Rossio square, where there’s a McDonald’s and it’s all very touristy. And I recalled your words from the book about the ‘geography of death.’
So give us the other side, because it wasn’t always this modern place. And what about the darker side of places draws you for your writing?
Richard Zimler: You’re quite right. Portugal did have a very dark history, particularly in regard to its Jews, but not only that. It took part in slavery. There were slave ships. So there was a very dark side to Portuguese history.
I guess what attracts me are two things. The first is I have a very subversive personality. I don’t know whether I was born this way or became this way, but I’m happy to have it. When I found out about the massacre that you referred to, in which 2000 forcibly converted Jews – we call them New Christians or Conversos or Marranos – when these 2000 forcibly converted Jews were murdered and burned in the main square that you mentioned. This had been completely forgotten, whitewashed and forgotten. No one knew about it. There were a few specialists in the area of Jewish history that had mentioned it’s in the books, but 99% of the population knew nothing.
So, when I found out about the massacre, I asked my friends who were tenure track professors and doctors and lawyers and architects, and I said, what do you know about the massacre? Nobody knew anything. And I thought, no, I can’t let this go on. I have a responsibility to literature, to the Jewish past, to Portuguese history, to say something about this. That was part of the inspiration for The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.
And then the second part of this was, I’m drawn to darker subjects because as one of the characters in one of my novels, The Night Watchman, says, he’s a detective. And he says, he usually sees people on the worst day of their life.
And that’s OK to him. Strangely enough, he’s a bit perverse because people are more authentic, they’re more fragile, they’re more needy when these dark things happen, and he likes that. He likes seeing people at their most truthful, honest times.
I think I’m the same way. When I write about the inquisition, when I write about people who’ve been betrayed, it’s no time for an inauthentic personality. It’s no time to be phony. You’re called upon to be yourself, whatever that is, whether you’re intolerant or cruel or wonderful or generous. These dark times force us to be ourselves. And I think as a novelist, that’s something that really attracts me.
Joanna Penn: It’s interesting because exactly what you say about the Portuguese empire. In Lisbon there’s this big [Henry the Navigator] sculpture with the travelers heading out for the Age of Exploration and as you say, they went out and there’s the slave trade, and there were lots of massacres that are just not, really documented.
I’d been reading some of the history of the Portuguese Empire wondering why it is less famous than the Spanish inquisition or the British Raj or some of these other historical things? And people listening might not know.
What are some of the surprising places that the Portuguese ended up, either with the Jews as part of the diaspora or the Empire?
Richard Zimler: That’s a wonderful thing for me as well as the writer of historical novels because I can practically put my finger anywhere on the map and find a connection to Portugal and sometimes even to Portuguese Jewish history, which I love.
So, they went to America. The first Jewish community in the United States wasn’t in New York, it was in Charleston, South Carolina, and most of them were Sephardic Jews from Portugal. Sephardic Jews being those Jews from Portugal and Spain. They obviously went to Brazil and colonized Brazil. They went to India; they had three different colonies in India, in Goa, which was the main one, but also Diu and Damão.
They went all the way to Macau, which until recently belonged to the Portuguese, and then they went to Malacca in Malaysia. And Timor in Indonesia. Obviously, they were in Africa as well, Mozambique and Angola. So they had forts all over the world and Portugal itself, because of that, became a crossroads for these different cultures.
I remember while researching The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, I came upon a quote from a visiting priest who said that Portugal, because of all the black and white people, the people of different colors, it looks like a chessboard. We had people here from, not just slaves, but of course we had slaves in Portugal and what they used to call mulattos, people with both white and black heritage. But Indians, Brazilian Indians, and of course, bringing all their different cultural, objects, cultural phenomenon.
Portuguese cuisine is very influenced by India, by Goa. It’s not unusual for people to here to eat curry, for instance, on a weekend as their special family meal.
And tropical fruits. Everybody here, long before they came to America, was eating mangoes and papayas because that was part of the African heritage and the Brazilian heritage, the language.
Also Portuguese, and variants of Portuguese, are spoken in all over the world, especially in Brazil, a country of 200 million people.
It’s great now that I speak Portuguese, although to go to Brazil it’s strange, they speak with a different accent. And some of the words and slang are different, but it feels strangely like my home. It’s surreal. I guess it’s like an English person visiting America or Ireland or an American visiting Ireland. You feel like there’s a linguistic, cultural connection, even though it’s quite different.
All this comes out in my novels because I have one, for instance, Guardian of the Dawn that takes place in Goa during the inquisition, because unfortunately the Portuguese exported this religious dictatorship to India and persecuted the small Jewish community, but mainly Hindus, all the way from 1560 until 1820.
I have other books set in America. And so, for me it’s wonderful. It gives me so many different options.
Joanna Penn: I think that’s why I was drawn to your books. I also write books that go through religious history. So I find this so interesting.
Your latest book is, as we record this in 2019, is The Gospel According to Lazarus, which is a historical novel written from the perspective of the biblical Lazarus. This is a fascinating topic to choose.
How does faith influence your travel and how do you research a book set thousands of years ago in what is now a very modern country?
Richard Zimler: I’ll start with the second part first. The research is something that I love, I feel that I’m good at it. Now that I’ve written 10 novels, I feel like I know how to do this with the internet. It’s easier because I can enter a keyword, like Holy land, Jesus, a daily life and a whole list of books will come that will tell me about what people ate and what kind of clothes they wore and how they built their houses and what the main cities were and what languages they spoke.
And so what I do is I buy those books. For me it’s an investment. Maybe I spend a couple hundred euros or pounds and I order everything I can find. And that’s what I did in this case. As I say, I’m mostly interested in daily life, so all those questions that we would have about living in a different time period, like what was the role of women back then? Were they allowed to leave the house? Were they allowed to have jobs?
How about kids? How did parents relate to their kids? Were kids meant to be seen and not heard, or did they go to school? What kind of schools did they have? I love researching this. It’s not a sacrifice at all.
So I spent the first six months reading everything I could find, taking copious notes. I love mythology. I needed to find out about Roman mythology, Jewish mythology, Greek mythology. Because what I discovered was that the Holy land back then was very much a multicultural society.
We tend to think of multiculturalism as a controversial topic for now, but back then, if you were a shop owner in Jerusalem, and you would have had to have spoken at least three different languages. You’d have to speak Latin, you’d have to speak Aramaic, which was the language of the Jews. And probably you’d have to speak some Greek and maybe some other languages like Phoenician as well. You’d have to know a little, a few words in that to help your customers.
I love finding out about those things. I love finding out little strange facts. For instance, I remember I was reading a book about archeology and the discovery of an amphora, a Greek vessel, clay vessel, which had a kosher Garum. Garum was a fermented fish sauce that the Romans adored, that they would add to all their different foods. It was apparently very smelly, a bit like Cambodian or Thai fish sauce now.
And the fact that they would have made kosher fish sauce, in other words, fit for the consumption of religious Jews, meant to me as a novelist, that there had to be a market for that. So there had to be enough Jews living in Jerusalem that were what I call Romanized or Latinized that had followed the customs of the empire. They lived like Romans that wore togas and ate their food and spoke Latin.
There’s a character in my book, Lucius, who’s one of these Latinized Jews, and he’s a very curious character and has an interesting relationship with Lazarus, who’s a mosaic maker and who’s building this huge, beautiful mosaic at the bottom of Lucius’s swimming pool.
I don’t really know the plot of my novels or even much about the characters until I do the research, because how can I decide who Lazarus was and how he related to Jesus and what his difficulties were. And how his two sisters live because we know from the gospel, according to John, that Lazarus was Jesus’ beloved friend, and that Jesus was friends with Lazarus’ two sisters.
I started my novel with this presumption that they were friends from childhood. That seemed to me a natural conclusion from what the gospel of John says. And so I do the research and then the plot and the characters come out of that. And then I start to write.
In terms of faith, I’m not a practicing Jew. I’m not a practicing Christian. But I do believe there’s a transcendent reality. I consider myself a Jewish mystic. I’ve read everything I can about Kabbalah, which is the branch of Jewish mysticism that started in the middle ages, back in the 10th or 11th century in what’s now Southern France, and from there spread out to the rest of the Jewish diaspora.
I think Kabbalah has a lot to teach us, about ourselves and the world that’s useful to me. And that came in handy because in my version of the Lazarus story, Jesus, whom I call Yeshua Ben Yosef, I call him by his Hebrew name, is a Jewish mystic. The earliest form of mysticism that we know about in the Holy land is called Merkabah mysticism. Merkabah being the chariot of Ezekiel.
Those of you who remember your Bible, know that in your old Testament that Ezekiel, this prophet, saw a chariot riding in the sky, had a vision and the Merkabah mystics used the language of the Old Testament and that vision to describe their inner experiences, to describe moving into an ecstatic state.
In my version of the events, Yeshua is a Merkabah mystic, a very extraordinary charismatic individual. And in the very first scene, Lazarus rises from the dead. But he’s very disoriented, very fragile, doesn’t know what’s happened to him, and worst of all, he’s lost his faith. He always believed that he would see God or something of an afterlife, angels, but he doesn’t remember anything.
So he decides that he needs to speak to his best friend, his dearest friend from childhood, Yeshua Ben Yosef, about this experience. And about what it means. So the two men, these two old friends embark on a new phase of their friendship. It happens that he’s awakened. He’s come back to life at the worst possible moment when Jesus is going to face passion week.
The book becomes the story of these two men and the sacrifices they make for each other. It’s about how we go on after suffering a huge trauma. And, I’ve been really pleased by the reactions of readers who’ve told me, for instance, that the crucifixion scene in my book is the most moving version they’ve ever read. So that’s been extremely gratifying to me.
Joanna Penn: It’s fascinating because you’re not a secular Jew because as you say, you are a Kabbalist mystic. But equally, you’re not a Christian. And people who write about Jesus are often Christian or from the Christian tradition. So this is quite a different angle on that story.
Richard Zimler: If I had to characterize the book in just one sentence, I say, I’ve written a mystical book about deep friendship and sacrifice, and one that’s a Jewish version of the passion week, a Jewish version of the story of Lazarus and Yeshua.
I was worried, of course, that people would react negatively to this because we each have our own ideas about who Jesus was and who Lazarus was and how they should be written about. But happily, very few people have been negative about the book. Most people have written me beautiful emails saying how much the story moved them and how different it was.
One reviewer, in The Times said that I did the impossible. I turned the whole last part of the book into a page-turner. He never figured that the story of Lazarus would’ve become a page-turner. I was worried at first, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how sensitive and intelligent. most readers are.
Joanna Penn: I want to circle back to this sense of place, because I’ve been to Israel 11 times and it’s come up in a lot of my books and I’ve been traveling there, I guess since I was 15, so, 25 years.
It’s a place that I have many deep and meaningful thoughts about, and yet it’s a place that is so difficult in many, many ways. And you’ve written about a lot of very resonant spiritual books.
Do you think that the years of history, belief, and blood in places like Rossio square and in Jerusalem impact a place?
When you travel there as a writer, you’re sensitive to that?
Richard Zimler: I think that’s a really interesting question and I think Israel, in particular, brings up really deep emotions in a lot of people.
They have so much of their own spiritual life invested in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land that when they’re there, or even when you just bring up the subject of Israel, you get this emotional outburst.
So it’s almost impossible, I’ve discovered, to discuss, for instance, current policies of the Israeli government or the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It’s very difficult to discuss these topics with people because everybody is so invested in their own perspective. And it can even be Jews or Christians who’ve never even visited Israel. But they’re so caught up in the mythology, in the symbolism. For Jews, we always say at Passover, “next year in Jerusalem.” It means Jerusalem is the Promised Land.
And so for that country to be in a state of conflict is, is just even more distressing and terrible for a great many people. And I think for the Portuguese, it’s not Jerusalem, obviously. It’s places like the Rossio that you mentioned because it’s the main square in their capital city.
So it does have a resonance for Portuguese people. And I think even for other Portuguese speakers from Brazil or even from Mozambique, there’s a resonance to certain places, like the Torre de Belem, the Belem Tower, from which the Portuguese discoveries set off for India and for America.
These places are imbued with such deep emotions, and again, it’s so difficult to discuss them rationally. There’s this discussion now in Portugal that has become very controversial about building a museum of the discovery. And even just the title, what do you call it? Were they really discoveries?
The native people in Brazil and American knew they existed long before Columbus got there. Or, the people in India knew they were Hindus and Muslims long before Vasco da Gama settled there.
So do we call them the discoveries? What do we call them and how do you present documentation about them? How do you discuss slavery? How do you discuss colonization? It’s becoming hugely controversial here with a great deal of resentment on both sides. The people on the right want to characterize colonization as this wonderful, heroic, courageous adventure. And it was. People were extremely courageous. And yet for the indigenous populations, it was a total catastrophe.
So for my point of view, it’s not either-or. I have the point of view of a novelist. You have to present, as best you can, the different perspectives. If you have seven different characters in a novel, you want to give each of their perspectives on a dramatic topic.
In my museum of the discoveries, I would have everything. I would have the courage of the people setting out for India in 1520, but I would always also have the inquisition and the disaster that it was for the Hindus who were forced to convert and then burnt at the stake in acts of faith in these autos-da-fe, which were these great celebrations where they would ceremonially strangle people and burn them.
But as you say, there are certain locales that are so imbued with emotion that it’s very difficult to not offend certain people when you write about them.
Joanna Penn: Let’s come to another book that I was interested in, which is The Search for Sana, which is about a Palestinian woman. And it’s exactly what you’re saying. Perhaps it’s part of your subversive personality!
This is an inherently political book. A Jewish man, writing about a Palestinian woman, and your characters are fantastic and many of your characters come from these different perspectives.
How can we transcend our expectations and our historical baggage and travel with an open mind to see that other side?
Richard Zimler: That’s another excellent question. I think as a writer we have to train ourselves to do that. We have to train ourselves to enter into the skin of our different characters, whether it’s in The Search for Sana, whether it’s a Palestinian dancer who’s 40 years old and who’s this incredibly gifted, beautiful person who has a wonderful relationship with her best friend, a Jewish woman from Haifa, comes undone because of this conflict between the two people.
I had to enter into Sana and see the conflict between the two peoples from her perspective, see her childhood with her best friend from her perspective.
I think that’s one of the keys to becoming a good writer; can you do that or not? Because if you can’t do that, you’re going to have a really difficult time writing anything that’s beyond your own experience and beyond your own views on all the great topics, your own view of sexuality, of friendship, of war.
I think that’s a challenge for every good writer. How do we do it?
I think living in Portugal for 29 years has given me some insight about that because when I first came here in 1990 to live, very naively, I thought that everybody thought the same way about all the big topics. Everybody viewed the role of a teacher and the role of a student the same way everybody thought about the ideal relationship between a man and a woman, or a man and a man the same way. That everybody had the same perspective on what we want in a government. What’s a good government? And, after a very short time in Portugal, I realized that’s just not true.
The Portuguese think very, very differently about all the big and small topics than an American.
To give you an example, private life in America, if you’re running for political office and possibly in the UK and Ireland as well, and a lot of countries, if you are running for political office, everybody wants to know about your relationship, either wife and where your kids go to school and are your kids on drugs? Are they good students? Did you ever do anything wrong when you were in college?
Justin Trudeau in this controversy about him wearing blackface. You have to expose everything you’ve ever done in your life for scrutiny. And that’s considered okay in the United States and proper because everybody, regardless, or most people regard it as true, that there’s a direct correlation between your private life and between your past life and your capacity to run a country or represent your constituency.
The Portuguese don’t think that way. They don’t think that you should have to talk about your private life at all if you’re running for public office. So here, the prime minister, whom we know quite well, he never has to talk about his wife or his kids. Never. No one even asks him about that. It’s just not considered the right thing to do. And it wouldn’t be considered relevant.
What more would we gain by knowing that one of his kids is divorced? It’s inconceivable to the Portuguese that that would have any relevancy.
In many ways, I’ve had to accept that there are different perspectives on every big topic. I’m not right about everything. It’s forced me to doubt all those opinions and all those preconceived notions that I’ve had.
I think that as people visiting a foreign country, when I travel, that’s been really helpful because if I’m in Thailand, if I’m in Australia, I’m in Brazil and people do things that seem odd to me – how they serve breakfast or how they honk in their cars – I’ve stopped thinking that those are wrong. That those are bad things, that those are things people shouldn’t do, maybe they still bother me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if I grew up there, I’d probably be the same way.
And then maybe in the circumstances they’re living in, their way of thinking about sexuality and friendship and technology and what people should talk about in public, that there are views of all that make a lot of sense to them. They’re not wrong. They’re not worse than me. They’re not simpler. They’re just as complex.
I think if we can have that openness, and I think if we can recognize that people really do think differently about everything that’s important, we become better visitors. We become more open, more compassionate, have more solidarity and empathy with the people that we’re meeting and talking to them.
Joanna Penn: I love that being a better visitor. I think that is a great way to travel. We could put it on a T-shirt, “be a better visitor.”
We’re almost out of time. I really wanted to ask you this question because having read bits of all your books now, and several, completely, many of your books feature birds in some form, either in dreams or in manuscripts or as part of the story.
What is it about birds that draw you in your writing?
Richard Zimler: Authors often reveal a lot about their personal psychology and past history without meaning to, or maybe they do mean to. So, every author has a certain eccentricity.
Phillip Roth talks a lot about baseball. And I talk about birds and I think it’s because when I was a little kid, I wanted to fly and I always thought birds were beautiful. I was a crazy birdwatcher. I’d wander around our small town for hours, just trying to find blue jays and orioles and chickadees. It was part of my life.
And curiously enough, I think birds have a long history of symbolism and mystical literature. There’s a wonderful epic poem written by a Sufi mystic in the middle ages called The Conference of the Birds, written by a man named Attar, and all the characters are birds.
It goes back all the way to the Greeks. The Birds, one of the most famous Greek plays, has hoopoes and other kinds of species.
I think humanity has always wondered how we can get beyond the limitations of our earthly existence. Flight has attracted us because it’s symbolic of the ability to go beyond our limitations. And so in my novels, a lot of the characters feel the way I do, and their visions come to them in the form of birds and bird feathers, remind them of their past, of their childhood adventures. It’s just part of my eccentricity, part of the way I feel.
Joanna Penn: I think it resonates with travelers because we look up and we see the birds flying off in the winter.
Richard Zimler: As a bird watcher, I love to go to foreign countries, particularly tropical countries and see the amazing birds they have. That’s one of my thrills in going places.
Joanna Penn: Apart from your own books, what are a couple of books that you would recommend about Portugal or set in Portugal that people might not have heard of?
Richard Zimler: There’s a Portuguese author from the 1950s, ‘60s and 70s called Miguel Torga. He was mostly a short story writer and he’s got two books that have been translated into English. Tales from the Mountain and More Tales from the Mountain, both of which I would highly recommend. Most of his stories are set in the rugged outback of the country in mountainous regions, poor people living in a very harsh environment, suffering, the trials of childbirth and hunger.
I think for people who want to get a feel for how Portugal was and still is in its most isolated places, Miguel Torga is the author to go to. I love his writing. It’s very succinct, very concise, very powerful. I really love it.
Another author, a classical Portuguese novelist, is Eca de Queiros, who spoke English fluently. He was a Consul in England for a while. Probably best and most well-known novel is called The Maias. It’s a family and it takes place in the last part of the 19th century, and it’s about the decline and destruction of a bourgeois Portuguese family. And so it’s a critique in a sense of all that was worst in Portugal. The backbiting, the pettiness, the bigotry. I think that would be a great novel for people who want to read a classic author and discover what living in Portugal in the 19th century might’ve been like.
And then I would recommend a couple of poets. We have some great poets here.
The most well-known of course is Fernando Pessoa and there’s a lot of translations of his work, but I would also recommend some more contemporary authors. One of my favorites was an old friend of mine Eudenio de Andrade. Almost everything he had is translated. His poetry is very powerful. Very, very succinct. Very abbreviated. He always seems to choose the right expression, the right words, difficult to translate because of that. But well-worth finding.
I translated a book by a contemporary poet named Al Berto, called The Secret Life of Images. And each of the poems is about a different artist. It goes all the way back and all the way forward to people like Chagall. The poem about Chagall and his flying brides, for anybody who remembers Chagall’s paintings about the bride and the groom flying through the air and different paintings of his. I would definitely recommend that book by Al Berto.
And then, strangely enough, I’d also recommend the lyrics of Portuguese songs. They use a lot of classical poetry and modern poetry in the fado songs.
Fado was the Portuguese tradition of melancholy, sad songs. and the greatest fado singer was Amalia Rodrigues. I would get her greatest hits. But we also have a lot of contemporary fado singers like Cristina Branco and Mariza and Ana Moura and Ricardo Ribeiro. It can be men or women, and if you get their CDs or download their music listen to their lyrics because, not all of them are great, but some of them are very moving and wonderful.
Amalia Rodrigues, particularly, has some extremely moving songs like Barco Negro, which is a black ship, or Estranha forma de vida, what a strange way of life. Amalia was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. So you can’t go wrong with her.
Joanna Penn: Wow. You’ve given us great resources.
So, let people know, where can they find you and your books online?
Richard Zimler: I think the easiest way to order my books, is probably Book Depository. Not that many people know about it compared to Amazon, but if you go on BookDepository.co.uk or bookdepository.com, depending on where you are, usually the postage cost is free.
It’s a huge bargain to order my books there. It’s just the cover price and sometimes there’s even a discount on that. So you save the postage that you would normally be paying on Amazon.
If you happen to live in a big city like London or Dublin or New York, you can probably just go into your nearest Waterstones or Barnes and Noble or maybe even your closest independent bookshops.
We want to support those independent bookshops and you can buy them there or certainly order them.
Joanna Penn: Well, thanks so much for your time, Richard. That was great.
Richard Zimler: I’m really grateful for all your help. Thanks so much.