Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Emperor of Lies

Low and behold it’s another non-detective novel from Sweden.  That’s my second in a couple weeks. Could this be a publishing trend? Or is it that this novel The Emperor of Lies and The Long Ships  are the only two Swedish novels that do not involve Perps.

Back in the land of Heidi and gruesome murder mysteries, The Emperor of Lies was big bestseller. It is a prize winning novel about the Lodzghetto by Steve Sem-Sandberg. Thanks to Sarah Death it has been translated into English.

The novel is based on historical fact in more ways than its location and time period. Sem-Sandberg has used Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski to center his story. Rumkowski, a Jew, was convinced that he could show the Nazi s that Jews were an indispensible labor force. He was put in charge of the ghetto and petitioned the Nazi s for food and money in exchange for labor. He got part of what he wanted. In trade for labor the ghetto got food although not as much as they actually needed. They had no resources to provide any food for themselves.

You don’t get any more evil villains than Nazis and The Emperor of Lies makes the most of them. Their evilness in the creation of Lodz is compounded by their more intimate actions of wickedness throughout the novel. This is all brought off very well by Sem-Sandberg but it is the unexpected bad guy that takes Emperor out of the realm of Nazi atrocity novel #874,000 and makes it fascinating reading.  This surprise is Rumkowski. Sem-Sandberg manipulates a page turning slow build up from heart-in-the-right-place-if-misguided-Father-figure-autocrat to Nazi stooge.

There is a density to Sem-Sandberg’s storytelling that at the start of the novel was a problem for me. He doesn’t begin the book at the beginning of the ghetto’s history or with any explanation and I felt that my ignorance was getting in the way of my reading.  My knowledge was bare bones at best. About 60 pages in to the novel I took a break and did a little research. This made all the difference for me. I re-started the book and was much more comfortable with Sem-Sandberg’s measured doling out of the ghetto’s history.

I did not become enough of a scholar to tell what other characters in the story might be real. My guess is that the bulk of the characters are entirely fictional.  Sem-Sandberg is not completely successful in making his very large cast of characters three dimensional. All the main players are well constructed, interesting and Jew or not capable of a great deal of moral ambiguity. However there are many people who walk on and off the arena for varying amounts of time and story exposition without anything other than physical characteristics that distinguishes them from one another.

I was hypnotized by The Emperor of Lies. The detail of daily life in the ghetto that Steve Sem-Sandberg recreates is as mesmerizing as it is overwhelming.  It was history that I knew nothing about presented in a fascinating multilevel narrative. Sem-Sandberg has left sentiment out of his novel. There are some heroics and much courage but there is also the story of 300,000 humans living in a very small space under a daily promise of death from disease, starvation, the neighbor who wants their apartment and the Nazis. That is a powerful scenario.

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