April 9, 2012 by markstani
Does the world really need another Holocaust novel? Not according to historian Simon Schama, who wrote this scathing, one-star review of Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies in the Financial Times.
Sem-Sandberg’s book (pub. Faber) is, says Schama, ‘all fugged up with the kind of “fine writing” that succeeds only in drawing attention to the emotional and moral void at its centre.’
The literary world is, of course (as Schama readily accepts) hardly placed to issue any kind of moratorium on Holocaust literature, and for all those who could not begin to contemplate wading through a standard-sized book on the subject, let alone ‘The Emperor of Lies’, which comes in at a gruelling 662 pages, there are others who maintain these kinds of historical testimonies play a crucial role in ensuring modern-day society is not allowed to forget the horrors of the past.
Certainly, ‘The Emperor of Lies’ deserves to stand apart from many Holocaust novels because it strays from its subject’s conventional territory and bravely focuses on the life of Chaim Rumkowski, the self-styled ‘Eldest of the Jews’, whose dictatorial rule over the Lodz ghetto made him one of the War’s most controversial figures.
Under Rumkowski’s rule, the ghetto was turned into a vast sweat-shop, churning out extraordinary quantities of goods requested by German forces in exchange for food supplies: it was Rumkowski’s apparent belief that if he could make the Lodz ghetto so productive as to become an inexpendable part of the Nazi war effort, he could thus save its inhabitants from the fate visited upon others.
He thought he knew that when the Germans spoke of Jews, they were speaking not of human beings, but of a potentially useful though basically repulsive raw material. A Jew was a deviation in himself; the very fact of Jew asserting some kind of individuality was a monstrosity. Jews could only be referred to in collective form. In fixed numbers. Quotas, quantities. This was how Rumkowski thought: to make the monster understand what you meant, you yourself had to start thinking like the monster. See not one, but a larger number.
If it sounds a preposterous notion, it is worth noting that the Lodz ghetto survived much longer than any of the other ghettos in Poland; long after, for example, Warsaw’s inhabitants had been sent to the death camps. As Sem-Sandberg posits in his afterword, had the War ended six months earlier, as it might very well have done, Rumkowski could have emerged an undisputed hero.
It didn’t, and he didn’t. Instead, Rumkowski’s place in history is defined more by his megalomaniacal qualities, and his almost pathological obsession which led him to expel fellow Jews from the ghetto (and thus almost certainly to their deaths) for the slighest indiscretions, and to acquiesce to Nazi demands that all those of non-working age – the elderly and all those under ten – also be deported.
For the most part, Sem-Sandberg succeeds in balancing the contraditions and inconsistencies within the novel’s pivotal character, imbueing if not him, then certainly his predicament, with sufficient sympathy to force the reader to address difficult questions of whether the end, in the unlikely event that it had indeed been different, might have justified his means.
In this respect, you could comfortably go so far as to suggest ‘The Emperor of Lies’ is the most technically proficient book on this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist.
It is badly let down, however, by one particular plot strand, involving Rumkowski’s adoption of a son, Staszek, who he plucks from the deportation lines. More pertinently, it the nature of Rumkowski’s relationship with him – which is explicitly paedophilic – which causes concern. The author admits in his afterword that while Rumkowski’s abuse of children in his care was well-documented, most of the specifics are mere conjecture. To that end, Sem-Sandberg’s descriptions of Rumkowski’s activities with the boy seem over-detailed and pointlessly drawn out, taking up a significant section of the book and having the effect of destroying the balancing act he has worked so hard to maintain: the reader simply condemns Rumkowski from that point on.
The knock-on effect is that the final two hundred or so pages of the book become a mighty slog: with the central character sentenced, there is a terrible inevitability about the remainder: none of the author’s myriad minor characters are quite drawn out well enough to compel us to wade on and embrace their fates.
Overall, this book raises important enough questions about the Holocaust to suggest Schama is wrong in seeing no worth in its continued exploration in literature. But a noble and admirably researched piece of work is let down by being too long and, in some places, too contrived.