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The King of Warsaw: A cinematic and thoughtful thriller

Szczepan Twardoch’s tale of anti-Semitic violence in prewar Poland is a must-read

The King of Warsaw
Author: Szczepan Twardoch, translated by Sean Gasper Bye
ISBN-13: 9781542044462
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Guideline Price: £19.99

A tall, handsome Jewish boxer comes to the door, takes Moyjesz Bernsztajn’s father away and has him chopped to pieces and his remains tossed in a pond. So begins Szczepan Twardoch’s arresting third novel, The King of Warsaw.

This is the first of Twardoch’s books to be translated into English, although he’s had much success in his native Poland and elsewhere with bestsellers Morphine, Drach and the Polish version of this book, Król (The King). Among his many impressive accolades are the Brücke-Berlin Prize and a nomination for the Prix du Livre Européen.

Literary historical noir thriller is how you might label this book (if you had a proclivity for labels). It’s 1937. Warsaw. Poland is a new republic. But Hitler is on the rise. Fascism is escalating. Around the city, violence and gang culture preside.

The book’s ingenuity stems from the way it uses point of view. We float like a butterfly around our central story. The biblically named “Jakub” Szapiro, our aforementioned handsome Jewish boxer, is at the centre. He is a ruthless enforcer for a notorious crime lord and a celebrated pugilist in the ring. But it is through the eyes of young Moyjesz (or Moyshe) Bernsztajn, a bereaved and impoverished frum – devout–  Jew, that we see the world.

After Jakub kidnaps his father, Moyshe is lured into the gang’s fold, and finds himself, despite everything, in thrall to Jakub. Just days after his father’s death, Moyshe sits in the back of a limousine, in “a different world”, wanting “to become Jakub Szapiro”.

Cool indifference

A TV series based on the book is being produced by Canal +, and it’s easy to see how it would translate well to screen. Peaky Blinders, The Godfather, even the gratuitous and cinematic violence of Tarantino films come to mind as you read. There’s a cool indifference to the tone – sentences like “he loved literature, he was eighteen and had already killed three people” are typical – yet a hot, rapid pace propels the narrative. You’d be tripping over your feet trying to keep up with these criminals, muscling through Warsaw, breaking noses, raping “whores” (all the women, one way or another, are “whores”; all the men violent, repressed thugs).

Twardoch is a deft writer. On this insecure foundation he lays a whole world

But arguably what’s most impressive about The King of Warsaw is the architecture of the words on the page. “My name is Moyjesz Bernsztajn, I am seventeen and I don’t exist”, our narrator tells us from the out. He repeatedly insists he’s “invisible little Moyshe Bernsztajn … little old nobody.”

So how do you read a story told by nobody? Twardoch is a deft writer. On this insecure foundation he lays a whole world. The reader goes along, despite all warning. Then Twardoch, somehow, collapses everything, leaving us to come to in a different story altogether, as though we’ve been struck a blow. To be too specific about this would be likely to ruin the effect, but see for yourself. It’s an impressive sleight of hand.

Perpetual loss

Obliteration. That might be a good word for what’s going on. Of a story. Of a people. Of a city. Of memory. Of identity. From the moment Moyshe’s father is taken away and Moyshe joins the gang, he begins to lose himself: cutting off his peyos (Jewish sideburns), eating non-kosher food. Even the syntax of sentences like “the building where my parents no longer were” contains perpetual loss. Things disappear, crumble, die. And as Warsaw fights over religion and ethnicity, faith seems to leave the city completely.

“There is no such thing as a human being,” says the narrator. “I … tell that to every rabbi, every imam, or priest who will listen: there is no god because there is no man.” It’s a nihilistic, atheistic way to view the world. Yet he derives this philosophy from his study of scientific textbooks that teach him the individual is not a conceivable entity; we are all inextricably linked. There is no man. There is only everything.

Even as it stares into the abyss, it seems to me that this text is getting at something beyond bleak nothingness

I read this as hopeful, and if you look closely you will find similarly meaningful markers throughout. The last three chapter headings – Dalet, He and Vav – can be interpreted as Hebrew representations of God. And the “solid bulk of a sperm whale” the narrator keeps seeing provides an odd thread of magic realism. There are metaphors to be scratched at, layers to be uncovered. Even as it stares into the abyss, it seems to me that this text is getting at something beyond bleak nothingness.

Either way – whatever way you want to read it – read it. The King of Warsaw is a fine and accomplished work that ought to be read widely and thoughtfully.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic