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The Emperor of Lies: A Novel Hardcover – August 30, 2011
This month's Book With Buzz: "The Lying Game" by Ruth Ware
From the instant New York Times bestselling author of blockbuster thrillers "In a Dark, Dark Wood" and "The Woman in Cabin 10" comes Ruth Ware’s chilling new novel, "The Lying Game." See more
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Praise for The Emperor of Lies
Library Journal (starred): “This is the story of the Lodz ghetto, located in Poland’s second-largest city. Unlike the bigger Warsaw ghetto, the one that the Germans established at Litzmannstadt (their name for Lodz) was highly organized and offered jobs to thousands of Jews, who made items for use by the German army and civilian population—before they were gradually shipped off to the death camps. Masterminding this giant enterprise was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews and the “Emperor” of the title. How this initially unmarried and childless man, whom some would call a misfit, came to a position of preeminence in the ghetto is the heart of this riveting narrative. Sem-Sandberg, who lives in both Vienna and Stockholm, relied on the Ghetto Chronicle, secretly compiled by the Jews of Lodz, which he has deftly fictionalized. Readers must struggle with the issue of whether Rumkowski was a crass opportunist or saved countless lives through his near monarchical rule. Death’s translation is first-rate, and the reading group guide should be especially helpful. VERDICT This portrait of hell is highly recommended to knowledgeable readers with a love of world literature and an interest in the era.” —Edward Cone, New York
“It would seem all the more difficult . . . from this remove in time and after so much retelling, to write a freshly felt, fully absorbing novel about the Holocaust — and yet this is exactly what Steve Sem-Sandberg has done . . . Was Rumkowski a sinner or saint? Collaborator or liberator? It is around this central question that The Emperor of Lies swirls, providing along the way an almost Dickensian cast of characters and cinematic richness of detail that invites immersion in the way few contemporary novels of serious ambition do . . . The Emperor of Lies is a chilling and illuminating look at a period of history that has been analyzed and reconstructed before but rarely in quite so three-dimensional a fashion.” —Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review
“A Swedish bestseller, this sprawling, Dickensian novel of the Holocaust now lands in America, where it is sure to attract attention.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[An] extraordinary novel . . . The story has been told many times before . . . yet rarely with such imaginative empathy . . . A brilliantly sustained work of historical fiction.” —Ian Thomson, The Sunday Telegraph
“This is fiction of true moral force, brilliantly sustained and achieved. It helps us to do what is so hard, simply to think about the Holocaust. Normally, the mind sheers away in horror after exposure to the accumulation of grueling detail and to the ungraspable weight of the statistics. It is so difficult to focus our imagination, our empathy, and Sem-Sandberg provides a way for us to do that, guiding the reader through the mass of information to the human heart of these appalling events. Fiction here is operating at its best, to close the gap between past and present, between them and us: not through sentiment, but through real understanding.
This is a stunning achievement and one to be applauded. I have lived with the book over several days, feeling I was living inside it, even dreaming about it. To read this novel is both an ordeal and a privilege, and I hope it commands the attention it deserves. It could be life-changing. I find it difficult to think of any book that has had such an immediate and powerful impact on me. So often there seems no way to approach these horrors but sidelong, at a tangent. What I admire and applaud is the author's direct engagement, the commitment to reality he has made. He shows us this fearful world in all its ambivalence and its human particularity. And yet you are not transfixed with horror; you are not forced beyond thought; you are debating all the time, what could they have done, what should they have done, how could it have been different? You are commanded to live through it and rethink it.
If there is one detail that for me selects itself as unforgettable it is the image of the X-ray plates of the children: the record of pathology preserved, the living subjects long ago lost and perished. Even if we have only the ghost of bones, this brave and brilliant author has made them a fitting commemoration.” —Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, winner of the Man Booker Prize
“Sem-Sandberg's recreation of the Lodz ghetto, utterly convincing, rich in sympathy and understanding, is more a lightly fictionalised documentary than a work of the imagination. Nevertheless it needed that form of imagination which goes by the name of empathy to enter this world of horrors and show how individuals sought to survive or succumbed.” —Allan Massie, The Scotsman
“Sem-Sandberg’s achievement is that this history becomes but a background to a multitude of vivid characters, the ordinary Jewish people of the ghetto, whose experiences he weaves expertly into a mesmerising whole . . . The Emperor of Lies is a novel about heart-wrenching suffering and extraordinary evil, transformed by Sem-Sandberg’s talents into an irresistible work of fiction, absorbing from first page to last . . . Dickens would have been very pleased with this novel.” —Carmen Callil, The Guardian
“[The story] is told in almost dispassionate prose which because of its sheer understatedness makes it all the more potent . . . Sem-Sandberg is an intensely visual writer and scene after scene comes vividly to life. The vast company of characters are memorably drawn and naturally the emperor of lies dominates . . . The final section of the book rises to startling heights of descriptive writing as the steadily emptying ghetto becomes a freezing snowscape barely populated other than by the ghosts who have perished. The concluding pages are almost unbearable . . . The Emperor of Lies is a memorable examination of human resilience and the will to survive. It is a most distinguished addition to the literature of the holocaust.” —Peter Burton, The Daily Express
“The author uses the Ghetto Chronicle, a 3,000-page archive set up by Rumkowski in 1940, to give this novel an extraordinary immediacy and power.” —Kate Saunders, The Times (London)
“In this vast and impressive book, the Swedish novelist Steve Sem-Sandberg revisits these five years of barbaric history. The chronology from April 1940 to January 1945 is handled with great skill . . . [and] the book is immeasurably strengthened by its multiple points of view . . . Yet the book is not a mere recitation of crime and evil. There are compound ironies in the fact that Rumkowski wanted to make the authorities acknowledge that ‘the ghetto was a special place’ . . . Perhaps the book’s chief virtue is that it doesn't attempt to resolve these complexities.” —Tom Deveson, The Sunday Times (London)
“Steve Sem-Sandberg re-creates the ghetto with intelligent meticulousness and passionate invention . . . With this book, Sem-Sandberg steps into the magic circle of leading European writers . . . A] masterly novel.” —Anna Paterson, The Independent
“Sem-Sandberg has achieved something monumental, but with a strange and necessary lightness of touch. The Emperor of Lies is sobering, scarifying, and, in its hunger for the truth, enthralling.” —Sebastian Barry, author of The Secret Scripture
“With The Emperor of Lies Steve Sem-Sandberg cements his position as one of Sweden’s significant authors. The book deserves marked attention.” —Markus Huss
“Majestic . . . Frankly speaking it’s an amazing novel . . . Part of the great achievement here is owed to how masterfully Steve Sem-Sandberg has managed to filter his material to a story with both cinematic flexibility and graphic clarity.” —Mikael van Reis, Göteborgs-Posten
About the Author
Steve Sem-Sandberg was born in 1958. He divides his time between Vienna and Stockholm.
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Top customer reviews
Months after conquering Poland and parts of the Soviet Union, the Nazis ordered the Jews into ghettos, usually fenced in and sealed, and located in the poorest parts of a city. The Nazis held the Jews in ghettos until they could be deported to concentration camps and ultimate death. As native Jews were moved out of the ghettos, their places were filled by Jews evacuated from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
The Nazis appointed a Judenrat (Jewish Council) to oversee the civil administration of the ghetto, taking care of food distribution, public health, housing, social services and policing. Persons appointed to the Judenrat had little choice but to serve. Even if the members had good intentions, they ended up carrying out Nazi orders.
The Nazis found their ultimate collaborator in Chaim Rumkowski, a businessman and director of the largest orphanage in Lodz. They appointed him Eldest of the Jews of Lodz.
Rumkowski devised a survival strategy. He turned the Lodz Ghetto into an industrial complex---a city of workers---manufacturing uniforms, military equipment and consumer goods for the Germans. Rumkowski hoped that Lodz would be so productive and so valuable that the Germans would never liquidate the ghetto.
He was wrong. In July and August 1944, the Lodz Ghetto was liquidated. Rumkowski and his family were placed on the last train to Auschwitz, where he died.
Sem-Sandberg bases his fictional account of the Lodz Ghetto on the daily Chronicle published by the Judenrat, diaries left behind in the Ghetto, memoirs and interviews with survivors. However, one cannot distinguish actual events from incidents made up by the author.
Nevertheless, the character portrayed by Sem-Sandberg is clear, strong and disgusting. Rumkowski was not a politician. He was a stooge of the Germans and dictator over the Jews. He carried out German orders. He had little bargaining power with the oppressors. He directed the Ghetto administration to prepare lists of Jews for deportation.
Rumkowski was corrupt. Compared to the other Ghetto residents, Rumkowski lived like a king. He had adequate food, clothes and at least two residences. He gave his friends and family jobs in the Ghetto administration. He was a child molester and sexual predator. He built a cult of personality. His face appeared on postage stamps. Automobiles were banned inside the ghetto. He was driven around in a fancy carriage drawn by a white horse.
Ultimately, Rumkowski's strategy failed. When the Russians arrived in Lodz in January 1945, only 800 of the 200,000 Jews who once lived in the Ghetto, remained. They were detailed to dismantling the industrial equipment and cleaning up the Ghetto, before they themselves would have been deported.
Chaim Rumkowski, The Emperor of Lies, exemplifies the evil of collaboration.
Reader of this book must ask, is own survival acceptable to allow thousands being enslaved and eventually killed in order to appease the Nazi authority?
I recommend the book to any reader, in order to remind ourselves the horrors of holocaust, but I am certain that the book will generate mixed feelings.