Rudolf II, king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, is paranoid, spendthrift, and wayward. In sixteenth-century Prague, seat of Christendom, he rules over an empty treasury and a court of parasites and schemers. Meanwhile in the ghetto, the Great Rabbi, mystic and seer, guides his people in the uneasy cohabitation of Jew and Christian, while the fabulously wealthy financier Mordechai Meisl has a hand in transactions across Europe and is reputed to be sustaining the treasury. His beautiful wife, Esther, forms a link of a different sort between the castle and the ghetto: by night under the stone bridge, she and the emperor entwine in their dreams under the guise of a white rosemary bush and a red rose. Only by severing the two plants can the Great Rabbi break the spell of forbidden love and deliver the city from the wrath of God. Perutz brings Old Prague to life with a cast of characters ranging from alchemists to the angel Asael, and including the likes of Johannes Kepler and the outlaw prince Wallenstein.
Leo Perutz, a contemporary of Franz Kafka, was born in Prague in 1882 and lived in Vienna until the Nazi Anschluss, when he fled to Palestine. He returned from Israel to Austria in the early fifties and died there in 1957. Now recognized as a twentieth-century master, he is the author of eleven novels that blend varying degrees of history, legend, suspense, and the fantastic.