Thoughts on: The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

November 29, 2011

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg is an award winning historical fiction book. The book was translated from Swedish and tells about real life, as well as fictional characters.

  • 672 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374139644

My rating for The Emperor of Lies – 5

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The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg is still an amazing, somber, hard look at a Jewish Ghetto, in Łódź Poland during World War II. The book has several stories which, might not intertwine, certainly run parallel to one another.

While a novel, the book’s research is a amazing and I sometimes forgot I was reading about the fictitious lives of others. The author is inside the heads of the characters but yet keeps a watchful eye on the historical timeline and incorporates non-fiction documents into the narrative.

Mixing fact and fiction is always a tricky business especially when writing historical fiction as oppose to writing a fictional story which takes place in the past. There are many historical figures which go in and out of this book such as Heinrich Himmler and the leader of the Warsaw ghetto Adam Czerniakow. Secretly I was waiting (in vain) for Mordechai Anilevich to make an appearance.

One of the main characters in the book Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, which is the character the book’s title refers to, is neither sympathetic nor relatable. Rumkowski which functions as the head of the ghetto and was put in place by the Nazis. He is a controversial figure to this day and even more so in the book. There is no doubt that Rumkowski had found himself in some very difficult, unenviable positions such as selecting ghetto residents for “deportation”.

The cast of characters in the book is dazzling, some like Adam Rzepin we read a lot about, others like the ghetto’s smuggler king appear and disappear quickly from the pages. But for all the different aspects of this book, it is still a chilling look at the ghetto and reconstructs its three dimensional life in an honest and somber way.

The book is dark and disturbing, but it has some humor, such as a ghetto residents asking what they would do with guns because:

“however would we go about getting the Chairman’s permission to use them?”

Was Rumkowski working for the good of the Jews or the Nazis? Was he a collaborator? Those are some of the questions in the book which the reader has to answer for themselves.

The ghetto at Łódź, Poland has existed for two years. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi nominated “elder of Jews” is asked to supply 20,000 Jews for deportation.  The lies and shadows of this complex man cover many pages of this book.

Adam Rzepin lives with his father and mentally ill sister. Adam is trying to survive with his family but will he?

Buy & Save on The Emperor of Lies
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ManOfLa­Book affil­i­ate account on:
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More books by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Zohar – Man of la Book
Disclaimer: I got this book for free from The Children’s War Book Blog
Article first published as Book Review: The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg on Blogcritics.

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  • Alex Baugh November 29, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Hi Zohar, Great review! I am so glad you liked this book. I thought it would be as good as it sounded. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to during the dark days of winter.

    I too enjoy books that mix fact and fiction well. It gives the story so much depth, not to mention realism.

    Great review!

  • Julie @ Knitting and Sundries November 29, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Wonderful review! I like historical fiction that still gives me factual information about the time I’m reading about .. I tend to learn a lot (and Google a lot more info, too!)

  • Harvee December 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    This does sound like a good book for winter reading. Your questions make me curious about this historical novel.

  • Shivanee @Novel Niche December 3, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Yet another deft, concise review from you, Zohar. It was a pleasure to get some insight on this book, as I’m always interested in adding to my knowledge about life in the Polish ghettos during the WWII occupation of that country. You might find a reading of Władysław Szpilman’s memoir, ‘The Pianist’, both riveting and illuminatory.

    • Zohar - Man of la Book December 4, 2011 at 8:24 am

      Thanks Shivanee for the comment and the recommendation. I haven’t read The Pianist yet but I’m looking forward to it.

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