When my mother mentioned more than a month ago that there is a new novel published in Hungarian titled “A kabbalista” (The Kabbalist) first I was concerned that it would be the translation of Berg’s “Education of a Kabbalist” or Zimler’s “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon”. But a quick check on the internet proved me wrong and I learned that this was written by Geert Kimpen in Dutch. It was published in German, Spanish and a few other languages. According to the author’s website it “will” be published in English in 2009 in South East Asia, but the publisher’s website is too barebone to find it and I couldn’t locate any other information about the English edition. So I accepted my mother’s offer to get me a copy. I read it the first chance I had, which happened to be sitting on the tarmac of Heathrow airport in London for four hours.
The book is a fictionalized biography of Hayyim Vital, a 16th century kabbalist. He was the student of Isaac Luria another Kabbalist luminary. The book’s major theme is Vital’s struggle for independence, from stepping out of the shadow of his master. His ambition was to be known as the most famous re-founder of Kabbalah, but the book suggests, that he was destined to be known only as the disciple of Luria, who would be known throughout the ages. Vital’s biggest, recurring decision in the book had to be made between the greatness he longed for via Kabbalah and the love he felt for his master’s daughter. We follow several years of his tormented life, until the pressure of making this decision cease to exist for a number of reasons, I won’t spoil.
It was a three to one mixed experience to read the book. The good aspects were the story, the style, and lessons. I kept finding myself surprised about the twists of Vital’s life. I thought there is nothing more that can happen to him, but in the next chapter something unexpected popped up and gave him a new direction. I also kept wondering how much of it was made up by the author, and how much is historical fact. Based on m limited factchecking a surprisingly large portion of the events seem to be real. The second aspect I enjoyed was the author’s and the translator’s style. I cannot judge the original, but I think Tamas Balogh did a great job with the translation. There were only a few places, where I felt that the flow of the language wasn’t the smoothest or where an expression seemed awkward. However the whole of the book was very much an enjoyable biography. The last positive aspect I want to mention was the integration of the novel with Kabbalistic teachings and principles. There weren’t too many of the latter to overwhelm the reader, but there were enough of them to teach them some of the basics. Just right proportions for me.
I have one grievance: I didn’t like the main character. I kept hoping that this is one of those character development stories, where the hero starts out being slightly on the bad side and through his tribulations learns to be good. I hoped for this, because it would have been corresponding to the book’s major theme of humility and putting God and the greater good ahead of your own fame and interest. But the Vital of this book never seemed to have reached that phase of evolution. He kept fighting the same demon: how can I be bigger than my master. One, ok I, would have thought that he can learn the lesson. I was mistaken. I would love to learn more about the characteristics of the historical figure.
Despite this last caveat I am happy that I read the book. I learned a lot about the possibly most important era and location the development of Kabbalah: 16th century Safed.