I suppose it’s too much to ask for a moratorium on the publication of Holocaust novels, but perhaps we might take a breather from having to read them, and especially those that parade their literary pretensions. As if 2009’s prime offering in the genre, Jonathan Littell’s radically over-hyped The Kindly Ones, was not enough, along comes another, the Swedish writer Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies, all puffed up with the kind of “fine writing” that succeeds only in drawing attention to the emotional and moral void at its centre.
The emperor in question is Chaim Mordechaj Rumkowski, the “Eldest of the Jews” who held dictatorial sway over the Lodz ghetto in Poland after it had been sealed by the Germans in May 1940. By practising a policy of slavish co-operation, and by turning the ghetto – in which 200,000 souls were packed – into a complex of small factories and workshops, making goods in return for food supplies, Rumkowski claimed to have saved Lodz from earlier extermination. It was indeed the last of the ghettos to be liquidated in the summer of 1944; but it was also the place in which nearly 50,000 died from disease and malnutrition and from which tens of thousands were sent to the first mass-murder camp of Chelmno, 60km away. Rumkowski was deported to Auschwitz on one of the last transports out of Lodz.
Rumkowski has remained a subject of agonising and bitter contention ever since, not least because we know so much about him and the utter wretchedness of the Lodz ghetto (in effect an urban labour camp) over its four years of existence. Apart from the sometimes formulaic Ghetto Chronicle, a daily record of doings official and unofficial, there are the photographs by Mendel Grossman, the personal diaries of Josef Zelkowicz and Dawid Sierakowiak. Sem-Sandberg knows, and has used much of, this material and wears his research with an air of almost pedantic studiousness. But the mercilessness of the truth is impossible to reinforce with the novelist’s hand. When Rumkowski is faced in September 1942 with an ultimatum to surrender the elderly (the over 65s that is) and small children, to save the “healthy” occupants of the ghetto fit for work, he spoke with terrible candour. “A broken Jew stands before you,” he said. “I must cut off limbs to save the body … I come to you like a bandit to take from you what you most treasure in your hearts.”
The fact that Sem-Sandberg quotes verbatim from some of these documents in no way mitigates the question: what is the point of fictionalising any of this? Or of adding to Rumkowski’s already appalling resumé – rumoured to include the molestation of girls – the graphically described paedophilic abuse of an adopted son? Is there not enough cruelty, desperation and terror in the truth to forbear from the luxury of fiction? The only justification would be if the novel yielded some sort of understanding that the archive resists. But no such augmentation of empathy occurs at any point in the course of this relentless, and ultimately tedious, book.
Worse than the defensively carried historical baggage is the matter of the writing itself. There is no doubt that Sem-Sandberg is a technically gifted writer. Passages in the book which sketch in a landscape of the ghetto – streets and buildings, the children’s home where much of the action unfolds – are done with a kind of ashy poetry. But this is scant relief in a book that turns on the style when Sem-Sandberg wants to shove our faces in the unsparing detail of the horror. People are tormented, mutilated and done to death in every imaginable fashion – as indeed they were – but in case that’s not enough, Sem-Sandberg makes sure to add elaborately stylised massacres of cagebirds and rats.
When a grotesque figure called “The Belly” has his eyes torn out with an iron hook by a Jewish policemen, Sem-Sandberg has a high old time with the imagery: “As the blood flowed, the gouged out eye dangled on its string like an egg coated in an oily brownish membrane.” You want to ask the writer: did writing that particular sentence, that particular simile, give you special satisfaction?
There is much in this vein running through The Emperor of Lies, although the German perpetrators of the atrocity remain for the most part a distant presence. What there isn’t is any memorable characterisation (least of all of Rumkowski himself), any gathering tension of plot, or any grain of redemption amid the wall-to-wall cruelty, suffering, treachery and malice, much of it inflicted by Jews on fellow-Jews. The fact that so much of the book turns on the fate of children only makes its failure of tenderness the more distressing.
It makes you wonder what Sem-Sandberg thought he was doing when he perpetrated this lumbering monster of a novel. Also it makes one meditate on the relationship between personal experience and moral power needed to take on this kind of subject. I am not of the school that believes a writer must have survived the camps in order to have written decent fiction about them. But one can’t help reflecting that when works such as Solzhenitzyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and HG Adler’s astonishing Panorama draw the strength of their narrative from direct memory, and their own non-fiction accounts, there may be something to the connection. Beside their raw witness to an evil so unspeakable as to be all but unwriteable, Sem-Sandberg’s misbegotten effort is just a 672-page cautionary footnote.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor.
The Emperor of Lies, by Steve Sem-Sandberg, translated by Sarah Death, Faber, RRP£14.99, 672 pages