Friday, January 06, 2012
The Emperor of Lies - Steve Sem Sandbergh (translated by Sarah Death)
(I do really wish I could find that review, by the way. I was convinced it was in the LRB, but a search of the archive there turns up nothing. It certainly wasn't this Guardian review, because if I'd read that beforehand I would have run a mile from the book. But it must have been a magical review if it persuaded me to buy and read a novel about the Holocaust that has been translated from the original Swedish.)
It's a beautiful book. Heartbreaking, yes. Depressing and sad and terrifying, certainly. But beautiful. It manages to neither use the Holocaust as a mere backdrop to an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit, nor focus on the awful details for prurient effect. Rather, it tells a beautifully rounded story of the people who live in the Lodz ghetto between 1942 and 1945, and the things that happen to them. It just so happens that the things that happen to them are the worst things you can imagine, and then even worse than that again.
Look, I'm not proud of my ignorance or anything, but I didn't know anything about the Lodz ghetto or Chaim Rumkowski before I read this, and maybe the novel wouldn't have had such an impact on me if I had. However, it seems to me to be a remarkable book whether the details are accurate or not. Reviewers talk about its Dickensian scope and characters, and there is something to that. It is a closed world in which the only events discussed are those pertaining to the ghetto; you're not going to learn anything about the wider war here, or even anything about Lodz outside the ghetto. But there aren't any funny names here, and there aren't many laughs either. What there is, though, is a prose style so beguiling and a set of people so vivid that your forget that you know what happens to almost all of them. Even with the benefit of reader's omniscience, I found myself hoping for good outcomes where I knew there would be none, and believing, albeit fleetingly, the lies of the ghetto administration because I wanted them to be true.
This New York Times review sums up a lot of what I felt about it as well.
Next on the reading list: the first seven chapters of War and Peace, because a bunch of my friends are reading it a chapter a day (it has 366 chapters) in this leap year. But also Hunger, because we're reading it for Classic Book Club. Non-stop laughs for the next little while, then.