cover image The Emperor of Lies

The Emperor of Lies

Steve Sem-Sandberg, trans. from the Swedish by Sarah Death. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (664p) ISBN 978-0-374-13964-3

Mammoth and crowded, this novel vividly illuminates the corner of history it portrays. In 1939 there were 320,000 Jews living in the Polish city of %C5%81%C3%B3dz, whose Jewish self-government, established by the Nazis, was led by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a real historical figure, like many of this book's characters. Rumkowski, a childless widower and failed manufacturer, successfully runs orphanages, promising his charges safety even as he tells them lies. Hans Biebow, the Nazi head of the ghetto administration, believes that the hungry are the best workers; "Workers with full stomachs get bloated." Adam Rzepin is a Jewish boy devoted to his handicapped sister. These and many other characters fight for survival in the ghetto; some of the Jews make a fortune, but most survive on foul soup ("hot water with something greenish in it"), if they find food at all. Though Sem-Sandberg often writes with extraordinary detail (a section detailing the many ghetto suicides is terribly moving), as a novel, this book has many failings. Even characters whose mouths stream with verbiage remain underdeveloped; dialogue is often wooden and unconvincing. But as social history comes alive, it succeeds admirably in chronicling the horrors of everyday life in the %C5%81%C3%B3dz ghetto. (Sept.)