Originally from New York, Richard Zimler has spent the last three decades in Portugal, where he has found inspiration in the country’s history for some of his best-selling novels. He delivered this year’s keynote speech at IMUN, and the Press Team had the pleasure of interviewing him to gain a greater insight into his work and the messages he hopes to convey through them.
One of Mr. Richard Zimler’s best-selling novels, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, has as its central premise a part of Portuguese history few know about: the 1506 Lisbon massacre. In front of the St. Dominic church in the center of Lisbon, thousands of New Christians, or converted Jews, were murdered and burned by rioters. When he came to Portugal, Mr. Richard Zimler was surprised that few people in Portuguese society knew about this historical event and how it’s not even included in some history books. When asked about the dangers of omitting these “dark aspects” of a country’s history, Mr. Richard Zimler highlighted that it can lead to “getting a very false and distorted version of our own history, a version that tends to emphasize all the wonderful things that have happened and eliminates completely all the bad things that have happened.” Mr. Richard Zimler added that learning about these difficult and negative events could “teach us ways to end wars, to stop discrimination, and to help people live fulfilling and loving and compassionate lives.”
Across Mr. Richard Zimler’s works, a common theme is that of religious persecution and intolerance. While modern society has come a long way in terms of religious freedom compared to what the characters in Mr. Richard Zimler’s works experienced, it’s clear that there is still a lot to be done. In his opinion, one key things countries must do is to maintain the secularity of schools and other public institutions. This should not be done to limit religion, but rather to prevent religion from being used to persecute and attack others. Mr. Richard Zimler further emphasized the risk of fundamentalist religion, since “fundamentalists believe that they have the whole truth about everything.” This ultimately leads to the silencing and oppression of people with opposing views. Mr. Richard Zimler explained that schools should aim to teach that “no one owns the truth, everybody has a right to express themselves.”
Through his work, Mr. Richard Zimler has served as a catalyst for tangible change in Portuguese society. For example, after his book The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was published, the Lisbon City Hall placed a plaque in front of the Dominican church as a reminder of the tragedy that occurred in 1506. Mr. Richard Zimler explained it was very hard for a book to change the world, but they can open our minds and possibly become the change, one person at a time. Looking at IMUN, he also believes in the importance of these conferences, especially for young people, because “you get introduced to topics and hear the opinions of people, who will help you to think for yourself.”
In Sweden, the media refused to advertise one of his novels, The Seventh Gate, due to its taboo themes within the country. Mr. Richard Zimler explained how the issue of taboo subjects is that they make people uncomfortable and prevent them from starting conversations on complex topics. To combat this, dialogue is extremely important: it helps people realize that we are really not that different, making these conversations easier to occur, and ultimately leading to positive change. This is where books come in: “they show people that people living in other countries, people living in other centuries, people speaking different languages” are not that different.
Mr. Richard Zimler’s books, and other historical fiction, can serve as a bridge between the past and present. He hopes that by learning about these dark historical events, his readers “take away that we need to fight against that, we need to choose a different path.” Such books can “help us navigate the past and become the people we want to be,” by allowing us to learn about the past and the changes we need to make to lead a better life.
In his final remarks, Mr. Richard Zimler noted how he notices that many of his readers resonate with the theme of identity. While he is not sure why, he does comment that in many of his books, they generally lose their identity and discover who they want to become. He adds that in many of his books, there is a common theme of tolerance and valuing diversity, something believes resonates with many of his readers. He hopes that his readers travel and learn new languages, making them less afraid of other people and bridging differences between cultures.
The IMUN Press Team thanks Mr. Richard Zimler for taking the time to be interviewed.