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Book Review: “The King Of Warsaw”

WarsawSzczepan Twardoch, translated by Sean Gasper Bye, 379 pp., Amazon Crossing.

This is an excellent, hardboiled crime novel that also functions as a work of serious literature. An account of Jakub Szapiro, a notorious boxer/enforcer in late ’30’s Warsaw, as viewed by his protegé, Moyshe Bernsztajn, at least ostensibly at the beginning, King starts  tough with the murder of Bernsztajn’s father by Szapiro and his crew for failing to pay protection to their boss, the jovial, socialist thug Buddy Kaplica. Out of guilt or a stray charitable impulse, Szapiro takes Moyshe under his wing, teaching him to box and other aspects of the hood’s profession, including packing heat and hanging out in a brothel with the most unsavory criminal elements in Warsaw, even letting Moyshe live in his apartment with his wife and two small children.

As befits a mobster protagonist, Szapiro dominates the narrative, big, strong, handsome, and ruthless, attractive to Jewish and Polish women alike, a feared and hated figure throughout Warsaw.  King would have made an excellent film vehicle for someone like John Garfield to have played Szapiro back in noir‘s heyday. Twardoch depicts the internecine, highly politicized nature of organized crime in pre-WWII Warsaw as bands of hooligans set up along ideological lines battle in the streets with fists, blackjacks, and pistols, making contemporary American gangsters like Capone and Luciano resemble kids playing beanbag. Populated by a rogues’ gallery of grotesques, the ratlike Munja, the huge, horribly deformed goon Pantaleon, and Rifka, the tough Jewish brothel keeper with a soft spot for Szapiro who left her long ago, fictional characters mingle with actual figures from Polish history, many as awful in their own right as the criminals they lord it over.

Like the best historical novels, King invokes the period well, with exotic, prewar Warsaw shown as a city of Old World charm, deadly intrigue, and miserable oppression, especially for the  lumpenproletariat Jews who regard Szapiro as their champion, inside and out of the boxing ring. The air of menace grows steadily more overpowering as the shadows of what would become the Holocaust increasingly lengthen. Salvation for Szapiro and his young family presents itself in the form of his younger, idealistic brother Moryc with his plans to emigrate to then British Palestine to help build what would become Israel. Tension rises as the reader wonders whether Szapiro will take the opportunity or continue his criminal career.

As I said before, while King works as a thriller and crime novel, it has literary merit also with such postmodern features as an unreliable narrator and the deliberate fostering of uncertainty on the reader’s part as to what’s really happening. Over it all floats the monstrous sperm whale Litani, leaving a track of destruction and filth in its wake, a metaphor for the protagonist and the awful, imminent outbreak of genocide, waiting  all the while in the wings.

Sean Gaspar Bye has done a fine job of translation, no easy task with a language like Polish, so very dissimilar to English.

I recommend this book to crime fiction aficionados although those unfamiliar with Slavic languages may have a hard time wading through multiconsonantal surnames and Warsaw streets.

https://www.amazon.com/King-Warsaw-Novel-Szczepan-Twardoch-ebook/dp/B07VTLQRXX/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+king+of+warsaw&qid=1590535563&sr=8-1

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48735658-the-king-of-warsaw?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=BPQJHiFFsT&rank=1

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