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Book Review: Guardian of the Dawn by Richard Zimler

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Novels that raise religious hackles under the guise of re-exploring lesser known historical periods, and exposing hitherto unknown ‘secrets’ are generally controversial, or at least contentious. That’s not the case with this historical religious novel, though not for want of trying.

Despite it’s author’s questionable motives, it’s with some relief that I report that Guardian of the Dawn hasn’t really raised any hue and cry anywhere in India. It’s not even made any major ripples in literary circles, let alone irked the desi (local) overlords of organized religion in this part of the world. And that’s something of a relief, this being, after all, the country that first raised the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and whose religious clerics even issued the first fatwah against the author. (The Iranian fatwah followed the Indian one several months later and quickly overshadowed our one, thanks to their superior use of the international media.)

In contrast, whether in India or elsewhere, literary works that dealt strongly with the Jewish-Christian divide have traditionally attracted great media attention. Palestine, Joe Sacco’s brilliant work of journalism in graphic novel form, was simultaneously hailed as an important expose of Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well as derided for its allegedly one-sided view. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci’s Cold&#8212achoo! achoo! excuse me, I mean The Da Vinci Code, of course&#8212was famously the subject of much furious debate in the Vatican and various Christian forums, even as it broke publishing records and sold some 26 million copies (and still counting), a few hundred thousand of which were probably sold within Patriot-missile strike distance of where I sit.

But I’d wager a bet that you’re not likely to see Guardian of the Dawn embroiled in any such media controversy, even though, by his own admission, the author would like the world to take his book as seriously as any work of journalism or historical expose. Why, you wonder? What’s all the fuss about?

Well, to understand that, you have to first know a bit more about the book itself.

Guardians is a work of historical fiction, the third in a trilogy by Portugese-Jewish author Zimler (his description of himself, not mine) about a Portugese-Jewish family (of course) in various time-periods. The previous two books in the Zarco family series, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, and Hunting Midnight were set in the 16th and 19th centuries, and dealt with various branches and generations of Zarcos in various countries and continents.

This third book (but not last, it would seem) is set in 16th century Goa, India, during the period of Portugese colonialism. So it’s with particular interest that I read it, and am sure many other fellow Indians will be reading it. After all, Goa today is a prime holiday destination for vacationeers from all over the world, with direct flights from several western countries and is often regarded as our answer to the Bahamas, Caymans, and other sun-and-surf paradises. And it’s a rich culture with many beautiful aspects, not the least of which is its wonderful Portugese-Catholic heritage. In fact, Goa became independent of Portugal and joined the sovereign democractic republic of India less than half a century ago. So you can see how close and how intimate its European ties must be.

But this is not the Goa that Zimler is writing about, mind you. So don’t get out our suntan lotion or pack that bikini. In fact, dress for wintry cold. And leave your Portugese e-translator at home, please.

The main characters are the first-person narrator Ti (short for Tiago) and his sister Sofia, and their father. The three of them live simple, idyllic lives on a plantation just on the outskirts of the colony of Goa, hewing to their Portugese-Goan faith, while dabbling freely in the Hindu festivals and rituals of their friends, neighbours&#8212and later, lovers. On one hand, it’s a more or less typical coming-of-age story about adolescent lust and love, youthful adventures and friendships, and the warm yet sadness-tinged relationship between father and son. The prose is simple and the narrative pleasant without any overly dramatic highs or lows, and there’s a great emphasis on emotional states and sometimes oddly nuanced feelings that a Freudian psychiatrist could probably have a field day interpreting.

But then comes the event that turns this deceptively simple historical family saga into something more sinister: Due to the daughter’s liaision with an outsider, first the father, then the son, are arrested and imprisoned by the Inquisition. And then begins a tale of torture and suffering, misery and betrayal that would make the Count of Monte Cristo cringe (but without the adventure and high drama of Dumas’s classic). The Catholic priests who have been ‘informed’ of the heresy committed by the Zarcos in intermingling with their Hindu friends&#8212and by simply being Jewish to begin with&#8212are painted as utterly evil sadists, with only a few human characteristics.

And the Catholic priest at the helm of this campaign of torture and ethnic cleansing of sorts is alllegedly none other than Francis Xavier, who was later sainted largely for his achievements during this very campaign and occupies an iconic position in modern India as well, with any number of schools, colleges, other instituitions named after him, and his saintly stature beyond reproach. As my mother was a Catholic, an Anglo-Indian no less, with roots in Goa (and, to be fair, Dutch-Irish-Scots stock as well), I’ve visited the basilica of St. Francis myself, and even seen his still recognizable body, preserved in a condition that is considered a miracle of faith. Even though I’m not a Catholic myself, I still have enough veneration for this iconic figure to bristle at the thought of him being made out to be some kind of Indian Torquemado of the Inquisition!

In a short but impassioned Afterword, author Zimler sets forth his outrage and shock at researching this period of Portugese-Jewish history (and Indian history too, of course) and learning of the “tens of thousands” of innocent Hindus and Jews who were tortured and slaughtered by the “fanatical” priest Xavier. And he even dedicates the book itself “To the many thousands of men, women, and children who were imprisoned by the Inquisition in India.”

This is all very well, and had Zimler authored a scholarly study of the period and events, we might be able to share his outrage and horror as he unfolded research proving said events and acts. But as a work of historical fiction, and by an author whose previous books have mined similar religious revisionism (or re-interpretation, to be fair) for the purposes of crafting popular bestselling fiction, it’s difficult to take him or this book very seriously.

There are other problems with Guardian: As a historical novel, it’s not particularly enjoyable. This is no rousing Micheneresque epic, nor a soapy Thornbirds or even Colleen McCullough’s clunkily written but magnificently imagined Masters of Rome series. In fact, most of the book is quite dull, and even downright depressing at times. As for the portions that provoked Mr Zimler’s outrage, well, they’re not really something you’ll enjoy much, take it from me, unless reading sadomasochism is high on your literary priorities. It certainly doesn’t live up to Zimler’s own goal of reinterpreting Othello in the tradition of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres or Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargossa Sea.

And as a religious-social polemic, attempting to expose so-called Catholic “fanaticism” and sadistic excesses against non-believers in 16th century Goa, even if it has its facts right, it still has its heart in the wrong place. But as a novel of outrage over a mini ‘holocaust’ of sorts, it fails completely. I’d rather reread Schindler’s Ark again, or go see the brilliant but harrowing Hotel Rwanda once more, or even just read a good aga-saga than waste time over this mediocre pseudo-historical.

For that matter, even the painfully overhyped Da Vinci’s Cold (achoo! Bless you, my son) had some entertainment value while also educating us a bit. Guardian of the Dawn, on the other hand, is unreadable as good historical fiction and unlikely as a bestseller.

To Indians who look for books about our country, it’s yet another addition to the long list of grossly embarrassing books that exploit the ‘exotic’ and ‘colourful’ aspects of our great national heritage, without truly coming to terms with the real India. Skip it. Visit Goa instead. And find a better book for the beach than this one.
Edited: PC

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  • prakash

    another pathetic attempt at whitewashing the past heinous crimes committed by colonial religious fanatics sanctioned by the so called saints. you cannot erase the blood stains how hard you might try!

  • sahebji

    Ashok [Edited] should read the book instead of writing a fake review to dissuade others from reading this book.

  • Ken

    I agree, this comes across as a very biased review, influenced strongly by the reviewer’s personal religious and cultural beliefs.

    Well, Ashok, you shouldn’t hasten to conclude that the Catholic priests have been wrongly or unfairly painted as evil sadists. In fact, based on published accounts of what happened during the Inquisition, perhaps “evil sadists” would indeed be the most appropriate adjectives to describe the holy men. Allow me to quote the French philosopher Voltaire here: “Goa is sadly famous for its inquisition, which is contrary to humanity as much as to commerce. The Portuguese monks deluded us into believing that the Indian populace was worshiping The Devil, while it is they who served him”

    As for your apparent hurt at the use of Francis Xavier as a prime player in the Inquisition activities – I wonder if you know who requested the Inquisition in the first place. Well – no prizes for guessing – it indeed was the much venerated “Patron Saint of Goa”

    Finally, your review seems to insinuate that the author has not got his facts right about “tens of thousands” of innocent Hindus and Jews having been tortured and slaughtered by the “fanatical” priests. All I can say, Ashok, is that perhaps it’s time to get a lesson on Goan history.

    And for the record, I am a Goan.

  • sanajy choudhry

    Pathetic and biased review.

  • This post was chosen by the section editor as a BC pick of the week. Go HERE (link) to find out why.

    And thank you
    – Temple

  • Hey Pat, glad to point you to a new book. And I’m always clear that what I dislike someone else will probably like hugely–or the books wouldn’t have been published in the first place!

  • I’m not sure how I missed these novels, but thanks for clueing me in, Ashok — despite your dislike of the third novel, it sounds like the first two might be worth reading.