I didn’t manage to completely stick to my book buying ban, but I am sticking to my resolution to read at least one Polish book a month. Usually reading in Polish makes it a bit easier for me to get into the book, it feels more natural, but hat was not the case this time. I tried to start reading this book probably four or five times and every time gave up after the first two-three pages. My guess is it was because the book begins with a description of a boxing match an I really am not a fan of boxing. This time I decided to persevere at least past that first scene to see what the book had to offer and it definitely paid off.
The story is narrated by Mojżesz Inbar, an old man with fading memory, that tries to remember the hero of his youth. To say that our narrator is unreliable is an understatement. Inbar tells us about his youth in 1937 in Warsaw, remembering Jakub Szapiro, the king of Warsaw’s underworld, the killer of his father and his hero. With his tale Inbar paints a lively picture of pre-WWII Warsaw, with a large Jewish community and growing nationalism in Poland. He focuses on crime world, the story is brutal and cruel, it mingles crime with a wider view of social relations between the Jews and the Polish, he also adds a shot of magic with a whale Litani floating over the violence ridden city as if feeding on the dark deeds and hate. We have here a just but cruel criminal, a whore with a heart of gold, a kid impressed by the world of crime, a psychopathic and evil criminal, all ingredients for a good classic thriller, and it is one, but it is also more. It is a book about loyalty, about feeling guilty about the past, about redemption that cannot be found, about forces bigger than us that affect our decisions no matter how much we want to do good, a book about bad choices that have consequences, about a world where indeed there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Twardoch’s language is rich and he builds dark, scary and powerful imagery. Sometimes turning savage, it’s not a pretty book. The world he builds stinks of poverty, fear, evil, violence and blood, it is glamorous in places, but this quickly proves just a cover up, no one is safe and no one is good in this dark time.
For me the most interesting aspect of the book was the growing tension between the Jewish community and Polish nationalists. It was a discovery for me, I mean I have been taught about it at school, but only briefly and teachers always quickly moved on to WWII, not dwelling too much on this shameful chapter in Polish history. This growing hate, breeding more and more violence was shocking, it also proved that history is written by the winners and can easily be manipulated. I think in the current climate this chapter of Polish history is glossed over even more, because ‘we’ were the victims of the war, weren’t we? This book uses a great story to remind us that war didn’t came from nothing, that no one was blameless, that things have been going in a bad direction for a long time before war. It eerily reminds me of what is currently happening, the world turning more and more hostile and less tolerant, no good can come out of this.