Historical epics tend to range across generations, even centuries, perhaps following the fortunes of a single family. Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes spanned the lifetime of one woman but traveled across continents. The Way the Crow Flies inhabited the lives of several individuals and had a wide geopolitical reach that extended across decades. The Emperor of Lies, on the other hand, covers less than five years in time and only four square kilometres in area. Yet in its intensively detailed account of life and death (and a good deal of shadowy existence in between) in the Lodz Ghetto, and its very wide-ranging cast of characters, it is as far-reaching a tale as could be imagined. It is a stunning achievement.
Ably translated from the Swedish by the aptly named Sarah Death, Emperor is the story of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, “the Eldest of the Jews,” appointed by the Nazis to rule over his co-religionists in the sealed ghetto of the Polish city of Lodz. Ostensibly, it asks the question whether he was a well-meaning pragmatist who hoped to negotiate with the Nazis for the good of the community, or whether he was driven by a lust for power, willing to sacrifice his fellow Jews to slave labour, starvation, torture and death to satisfy his ambition.
The epic scope of Emperor reveals itself in the stunningly meticulous level of detail Sem-Sandberg marshals to build his huge story, as if creating a city out of grains of sand. Every event takes place on a particular street, at a particular address. We know how many tailor shops there were, how many of those made uniforms for the Wehrmacht, and how many, illegally, made women’s undergarments instead. We know how many tons of potatoes were trucked into the ghetto every day and how many doctors there were (while there were still hospitals), how many grams of bread workers received, and how many cases of diphtheria were recorded in each year of the ghetto’s existence.
One is introduced to character after character, so many that it is at first impossible to engage with any of them; on the contrary, one begins to feel alienated. The first third or so of the 641 pages reads like a relentless regurgitation of Sem-Sandberg’s research, an almost numbing recitation of facts that brings to mind nothing so much as Claude Lanzmann’s classic Holocaust film Shoah, a nine-and-a-half-hour documentary of which the rhythmic turning of the wheels of a cattle car through the Polish countryside is the classic image. Watching the film, the viewer struggles with boredom and frustration, finally breaking through into the realization that she is experiencing, in a minuscule way, the horror of the more banal aspects of the reality experienced by the Holocaust’s victims.
But Sem-Sandberg is a highly skilled writer, even slipping occasionally into moments of dreamlike beauty. So the reader continues to read even while resisting the litany of statistics, street names, and seemingly unrelated events, until the cast of characters begins to take shape, and she finds she has been firmly drawn into the nightmarish, surreal, mostly true story.
Although the back-cover blurb positions the main mystery of the plot as the question of Rumkowski’s moral status, Sem-Sandberg doesn’t leave the reader in suspense for long: Rumkowski’s monstrous self-regard and total lack of compassion soon accumulate into much greater crimes.
But the most chilling thing about the story is not the brutal opportunism and revolting misdeeds of one man, nor even the much larger horrors of the Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of so much of Europe, a part of which unfolds before us in vivid, microscopic detail. After all, the figure of the sadistic Nazi, however real, is the stuff of cliché. The really terrifying thing, which makes up the woof and warp of this story, is the way that Rumkowski’s abuse of power only differed on the level of scale from the abuses that the residents of the ghetto heaped on each other, prompted by greed, selfishness, hunger, fear, and foolishness. Adults wait around to steal sacks of coal splinters that malnourished children struggle to dig from packed earth in the freezing Polish winter; people turn their neighbours in to the police because it makes them feel important; a man sells his sister into sexual slavery to stave off his own deportation. All of which makes it so much more powerful when Sem-Sandberg shows us a few rare examples of integrity, of generosity, of the strength of hope or love or the simple dogged desire to live, that keeps a few individuals alive through years of starvation without having descended to the brutal exploitation of others.
Elise Moser’s novel, set in Montreal, is called Because I Have Loved and Hidden It. She is currently co-editing Minority Reports, the anthology of Quebec Writing Competition winners, with Claude Lalumière. It will appear from Véhicule Press this fall.