I decided to reread this book after a friend recommended reading Królestwo, which is a sequel. As I read Król a few years ago I remembered only the broad strokes of the plot and the general mood of the book, so a refresh was needed.
The story is told by Mojżesz Bernsztajn (I retained Polish spelling, as Mojżesz is a Polish Jew), clearly from a perspective of a few decades. He brings back to life the events of 1937, when, as a seventeen-year-old boy he lived in Warsaw and when his father was killed. Mojżesz’s father is killed by Jakub Szapiro, a boxer working as an enforcer for Kum Kaplica, the man who ruled the Warsaw underworld. The tale revolves around Jakub, a complex figure to handle for Mojżesz, as he is his father’s killer, but at the same time stands for everything that impresses the young boy.
The situation in Warsaw at that time is tense, as can only be expected two years before World War II broke out. On one hand, we have a very large Jewish community, split into communists and nationalists, on the other, the Poles, split along similar lines, but also mostly perceiving the Jews as foreign and a threat. With the added pressure of fascism in Germany, it is like living on a barrel of gunpowder. The violence permeates every single day of the city’s life, with the added threat of the fundamental conflict exploding into something unimaginable.
The interesting thing here is that Hitler’s Germany is not necessarily perceived as dangerous, the danger is within Warsaw and the nationalist Polish officers plotting the coup. Now let’s add into the mix the underworld that is the natural environment of Szapiro and Kaplica. An environment that young Bernsztajn is easily dazzled by.
As you can imagine it is a dark and brutal book. At times we are being thrown back to the present time where our narrator is an old man, and we start to gradually understand that he may not be the most reliable witness, but we have no choice but to follow his story. We know there is no one else left to pass it on.
Above this dark world, there is a vision that accompanies Szapiro and Bernsztajn, Litani, a huge sperm whale with fiery eyes. He floats in the sky above the violence-torn city and feeds on the unrest. Litani sings his wordless song that feels like a swan-song (whale-song?) of a city that is about to tear itself apart. The irony here is that effectively the city’s destruction will not come from within, but its rotten core will make it so much easier.
The book operates on two levels, the specific story and ambition of Jakub Szapiro, and the broader political picture of a city on the brink of destruction. We get to know all the forces in play with the added hindsight of how little they will mean in the endgame that will start in 1939. This combination of the plot we are presented with, the unreliable narrator, and our knowledge of what is to come creates a tension that is rarely seen in the literature.
On the other hand, the immediate plot reads like a well-paced crime story. We have the underworld competition and gang wars, racketeering, and the human cost of it. All this with a background of class-war and, as always, the poorest being hit the hardest. The way Twardoch presents the world it is very much a ‘men’s world’, women play side parts in it or have to sacrifice everything to carve out an independent existence.
In November 2020 CANAL+ released a series based on the book, I may say it was inspired by the success of Babylon Berlin if it wasn’t for the fact that my edition of the book already mentions CANAL+ buying the rights in 2016.Though the inspiration is still possible, as Babylon Berlin aired in 2017, so clearly it was already being produced in 2016. Either way, I can only recommend the book as I haven’t seen the series yet.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska