A novel set against the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa in the 16th century? Sounds fascinating. Alas, in Guardian of the Dawn, Richard Zimler takes this premise and turns it into an overly solemn and often portentous work.
The novel narrates the fate of Tiago, brought up by his Portuguese-Jewish father in the princely state of Bijapur, his Indian mother having died in his infancy. Others in Tiago’s orbit include his high-strung sister Sofia, his loving cook Nupi, his enigmatic adopted cousin Wadi and his gentle wife Tejal. Tiago is imprisoned and tortured by zealous officials of the Inquisition and the story moves from present to past as he recalls his childhood and the circumstances that have led him to his current predicament.
Years later when he is finally free, Tiago makes plans to identify the shadowy individual who incriminated him, and take his revenge. This is when, all of a sudden, the novel’s tone and pace shifts to become a tale of behind-the-scenes machinations and bloody murder, a laOthello (Tiago, Iago, get it?).
Notwithstanding some scenes of great vividness – such as the sentencing and punishment of alleged heretics – Zimler’s prose is often florid, and we never get an accurate sense of the main character’s identity as half-Indian, half-Portuguese. The gravity with which Catholic excesses are delineated is excessive, with innocents too obviously pitched against zealots, and the underlining of common ties between religions could have been more subtle. Despite the research and seriousness of intent – or perhaps because of it -- Guardian of the Dawn is too ponderous by half.