Book Review: The emperor of lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

I am not going to lie, I am so glad this book is now on my pile of finished, read, done-with books. It was not an easy read and it was also an accidental one. Whenever my mother visits, she leaves books behind. Some times it’s because she purposefully bought them for me while other times it’s the book she was reading on the airplane and there is no space left in her suitcase when she goes back home. I always enjoy those books for the simple reason they are all Greek and it’s so nice to read a book in your mother tongue when you live abroad. This book was one of those that just didn’t fit in her suitcase, which makes sense considering how thick and heavy (literally and metaphorically speaking) it is.

You can read many reviews online about “The emperor of lies”. It won the August Prize (Swedish annual literary prize) after all. This is going to be my very personal experience with the book and not a “serious” literary review in any case. For what it’s worth, here it goes…

To summarize very shortly, the book revolves around the lives of Polish-Jews residing in Lodz Ghetto, established by the Nazis in 1940. More specifically, it follows closely the Jewish elder Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, who was responsible for the ghetto. Lodz was a great production force for all sorts of military supplies for the Germans during the war. The Jewish workers there were in fact so productive, that Lodz was the last ghetto city to go down during the war.

Throughout the book the reader gets to know quite a few characters in depth, but Rumkowski is the one that develops the most, unraveling his twisted, vain, monstrous personality. He is governed by a deep thirst for power and lives under the illusion that the ghetto is “his”. This works great for the Germans, who allow him the liberty to organize it as he pleases, as long as the production stays steady. He takes pride in “his” factories, schools, orphanages, bank and even currency. He knows that in order to satisfy his ambition he has to act slavish and be obedient to the Nazis and that’s exactly what he does, without ever considering the well-being of his own people. He appears to be full of regret for the harsh decisions he has to make, but it soon becomes clear that this is only a facade.

On the back cover of the Greek edition of the book, reviews talk about a masterpiece that, despite the heavy subjects, celebrates the love for life and the way it finds to flourish in the worst conditions. To be completely honest, I didn’t exactly understand how people drew that conclusion. Sure, people have a deep, primal need for survival. They keep going, they keep hoping despite the hunger, the violence, the death around them. In the book there are a few cases where the deep love of one person for another is translated into great sacrifices and acts of bravery, but that is not the lasting impression I have from it. What stuck with me was how war turns people into animals. How all dignity is lost, how the weakness of the body betrays the soul, how minds are lost and people don’t even recognize themselves any more.

What I loved about the book was the powerful description of smells, textures and tastes. Though I found it hard to identify with the characters in the first 200 pages (it’s a 700 pages book), once senses came into play, I found myself being transferred right there, in the middle of Lodz. The awful taste of the watered-down soup made of rotten cabbage, the stale urine and feces, the smell of dead bodies, the cold snow piercing the skin, the absolute darkness of isolation and hiding places, the squeaky sounds of soldier boots approaching… To me, here lies the power of this book.

I said that I found it hard to identify with the characters of the book at the beginning. I feel extremely lucky that I have never witnessed a war in my life and hope never to. But I kept reading the book because I feel it is highly important to be informed, to gather knowledge about the horrible reality of war. This is the only way to be empathetic without having to endure the suffering first. And as I said before, Sandberg managed to bring that era, that situation, those people to life.

It is worth noting that Rumkowski was a real person and the book is based on the thousands of pages of the actual Lodge archive. Once the reader realizes that, the book becomes even greater, not because it’s based on real facts, but because of the realization of Sandber’s great skill, to bring the Lodge ghetto to life.

I guess I don’t need to say it, but that’s not a feel-good read and you can’t really expect happy endings when war is involved.

Now go read it!

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