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The King of Warsaw

Polish author Szczepan Twardoch’s newly translated gangster novel is a non-Jew’s view of the total absence of Jews—and the haunting effects of that absence on present-day Poland

Dara Horn
December 17, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Can non-Jews write Jewish literature?

It’s a tedious question, and not only because it forces one into a boring conversation about what Jewish literature is. That conversation doesn’t need to be boring, but it becomes so when it’s conducted by people who have never thought seriously about Jewish languages or any of the works written in them, at which point it tends to devolve into a pathetic non-idea of “sensibility”—which translates into “a character in this book made sarcastic remarks while eating lox.” The question is also tedious because of the unsettling and unexpressed idea that lies beneath it: namely, that there is some creepy biological or otherwise fate-driven component to meaningful engagement with Jewish culture, rather than years of conscious thought and chosen experience.

So, can non-Jews write Jewish literature? Of course, just as Jews can—if they choose to know something about Jewish culture beyond, say, Googling it. The creative-writing dictum “write about what you know” easily expands beyond one’s navel if one is actually a writer, and willing to learn.

This question of non-Jews writing Jewish literature or from Jewish perspectives is generally treated like a moot point, as I believe it should be—and non-Jewish writers from George Eliot to Colum McCann aren’t getting canceled over it. But when it comes to many other minority groups, the question of whether writers should be “allowed” to write from cultural perspectives other than their own is alive and well, as illustrated by the uproar in literary circles earlier this year over American Dirt, an Oprah-blessed novel about Mexican migrants which was (wait for it) not written by a Mexican migrant.

My mind raced through this moral and aesthetic morass as I read The King of Warsaw, a newly translated 2016 Polish novel about Jewish criminals in Warsaw’s pre-Holocaust underworld, written by the celebrated contemporary Polish author Szczepan Twardoch, who is (gasp) not Jewish. I recalled all the complaints of “brownface” that met American Dirt, and wondered, as I read, if one could make similar complaints of “Jewface” in Twardoch’s elaborate ventriloquism act—which in this novel extends not only to its narrator, purportedly a one-time Warsaw gangster-in-training who is now a retired Israeli general writing his memoirs, but also to passages of transliterated dialogue in Warsaw Yiddish and minor trying-too-hard mistakes like a consistently backward-printed Hebrew word as someone’s tattoo, which is the sort of copy-editing error that no one literate in Hebrew would make.

The answer, disappointingly and unsurprisingly, is yes. The far more intriguing question, though, is what that means in a society where almost no Jews remain to speak in their #ownvoices. Is there a kind of generosity, however potentially patronizing, in someone else at least putting in an honest effort to speak on their behalf? Or is this exercise really about something entirely unrelated to the Jews for whom it purports to speak?

To answer that deeper question, it’s worth looking at The King of Warsaw objectively as literature, and the many clues its author drops about what exactly he is after. Those hints ultimately reveal that this isn’t a novel about Jews, but about their absolutely pervasive absence. For an author in Poland today, that may well be a story that is very much worth telling.

The King of Warsaw is, first and foremost, a gangster novel of the kind that could just as easily been set in almost any city or century. Its main character is Jakub Szapiro, a celebrated Jewish boxer and key enforcer in a gang run by non-Jewish kingpin Buddy Kaplica, who brutally controls Warsaw’s Jewish and non-Jewish slum neighborhoods while also defending them from exploitation by the city’s actual elite. From there, the novel hits all the expected beats: Thugs recruit the young and vulnerable and provide them with a kind of family; turf wars and personal vendettas rage; men punch each other while women seduce them; extorted cash gets spent on cars, blackmail, and bribes; brutal murderers are revealed to be loving spouses and parents; someone’s corpse gets chopped into pieces and distributed over a large geographic area; prostitutes are graphically abused and later avenged; the gang battles the city’s larger power structure of police and politicians; the body count goes through the roof. Through it all, a cheap action-hero morality of loyalty and honor prevails so that the reader is led to sympathize with the most vengeful and violent figures, because they’re the witty, hard-boiled mavericks who stand up for themselves and those they love.

We’ve all seen this movie before. For those who can stomach the Tarantino-worthy bloodbath (and Quentin Tarantino, as a fellow non-Jewish philo-Semite, is an interesting comparison artist here), there’s a voyeuristic fun to it—and Twardoch is clearly a pro at keeping the pages turning.

‘The King of Warsaw’ isn’t a novel about Jews, but about their absolutely pervasive absence.

The most obvious element distinguishing this book from every other gangland story is its 1930s Warsaw setting, and Twardoch’s emphasis on the city’s prewar social segregation and pervasive anti-Semitism. The opening scene, a champion boxing match between Szapiro and a virulent anti-Semite, lays bare this enormous tension: “Those two Warsaws were gathered around the ring, speaking two languages, living in separate worlds, reading different newspapers, showing one another indifference at best, hatred at worst, but usually just remote disdain, as though they lived not on neighboring streets but an ocean apart.” This setting brings a new dimension to the novel’s gang, which is unremarkable in its depravity but remarkable for being integrated—and for how consistently its non-Jewish members stand up for its Jewish ones by jointly and brutally attacking openly anti-Semitic criminals, journalists and political figures.

I don’t know enough about Warsaw’s prewar criminal underworld to know how historically likely such a situation might be, though I know enough about writing historical fiction to know that you can often find enough anomalous fun facts to build whatever story you want to tell. For a recent Polish novel, though, this feel-good concept of Jewish and non-Jewish thugs fighting together against anti-Semitism seems a bit self-congratulatory and fantastical.

A recent Polish law outlawing public statements suggesting complicity by Poland in the Holocaust, while true to the country’s history, also reflects the limits of public discussion of the less pleasant aspects of the past Poles and Jews shared. Twardoch’s deep dive into Warsaw’s very real prewar segregation and the openly anti-Semitic attitudes of its own pre-Nazi leadership is a welcome and perhaps even daring corrective to his country’s official narrative of its past. On the other hand, his imaginative revenge-fantasy, like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, feels like wishful thinking—but, as the book’s weirdest and most surreal elements suggest, perhaps this is his point. Because this book does get weird, and then it gets weirder.

Twardoch drops hints from the very first page that events in this novel may not be what they seem. The narrator introduces himself as follows: “My name is Mojzesz Bernsztajn, I am seventeen, and I don’t exist. ... I am not a person, I am no one, there is no me, I do not exist. ... My name is Mojzesz Inbar, I am sixty-seven, I’ve changed my name. I’m sitting at a typewriter, writing. I am not a person. I have no name.” When stuff like this shows up on a book’s first page, readers tend to stick it out to see where it’s going—and in this book, those readers are immediately rewarded with extremely concrete descriptions of a boxing match and a brutal murder. Soon we’re chugging along through bars and brothels, beatings and extortions. But a hundred pages in, something so strange happens that I had to put the book down, too bewildered to continue.

In this scene, an old Jewish mob boss shows up and, at gunpoint, orders a non-Jewish gang member to show his “face.” The man lifts the long hair on the back of his head, and the boss commands the narrator to look: “I did. On the back of Pantaleon Karpinski’s head, there was a face. Smaller than a full-grown one, with eyes closed and a sad, frowning mouth. ... I froze. I knew what was happening to me: I was staring into the abyss. I was touching the feet of God. Or maybe I’m remembering wrong. Maybe I was only scared right then, the abyss came later. I don’t know.”

This may sound like a dream sequence, but Twardoch plays it straight. The minor character Karpinski, we learn, is a former circus freak, born as a conjoined twin whose “brother” is literally on the opposite side of his head. Later we learn that his “devil brother” often whispers evil messages to him, resentful of being forced to live on the underside of his public brother’s life. This “second face” reappears several times in the novel, until both faces fall victim to the overall bloodbath. It’s the first of many hints of a shadow world hidden beneath this novel’s garden-variety gangland. Another is “Litani,” apparently a form of the Hebrew “Leviathan” from the biblical Book of Job (which is quoted at length later in the novel)—a surreal image of a life-devouring whale that several characters repeatedly perceive hovering over their city. And then there’s the book’s final twist, in which its narrator turns out to be, shall we say, unreliable. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

These surreal elements are awkwardly slotted into the novel’s otherwise relentlessly physical world, and it must be said that Twardoch, whose talents in this book lie more in propulsive genre storytelling than in experimental art, doesn’t quite succeed in pulling them off. In interviews, Twardoch has claimed that the book’s main theme is simply the corrosiveness of violence. But to me, these uncomfortable moments that clearly don’t belong in a generic gangland thriller revealed the book’s deeper purpose.

Prior to the Holocaust, Jews had lived in Poland for nearly a thousand years, and Polish cities like Warsaw and Lodz were up to one-third Jewish. The majority of Jews murdered in the Holocaust were from Poland, and all six of the Nazi-constructed extermination camps were located there. Whether or not Twardoch intended it, I read the literally two-faced man as a representation of Poland’s missing Jewish population whose absence cannot be ignored, no matter how hard one might try. This ghost constantly haunts the country’s current population just below its surface, not merely a phantom limb but a whole phantom face, whispering tragic and bitter messages that the outward face would rather not hear.

Twardoch’s narrator, as he announces on the very first page, doesn’t exist. How could he, in a country emptied not only of its Jews, but of the freedom to tell honest stories of the past?

The King of Warsaw isn’t Jewish literature, exactly—not because non-Jews can’t write Jewish literature, but because when we write about the past, we are never using our #ownvoices, and Twardoch knows it. There are many worthwhile ways to create that past in literature, in palaces of the imagination. But in this novel, Twardoch is after something different: a reconstruction of the present, a world haunted by its missing brother, who can no longer speak in his own voice—a brother whose blood, forever flowing, still cries out from the ground.

Dara Horn is the award-winning author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews.