These assassination plans are not literary fiction – such ideas supposedly really circulated in Warsaw at the time. However, the protagonists of the book are more fictional – although some of them are also modelled on real-life characters: gangsters, as well as PPS (Polish Socialist Party) activists and fighters. It’s unclear if there was a model for the titular ‘King’ (apparently there is, but not in Poland), but it is rather unimportant. What is more important is that Jakub Szapiro is a very interesting character – a great boxer and an even better gangster, a Jew, a veteran of the Polish-Soviet war, a dandy, a ladies’ man, a nobleman and a scoundrel at the same time.
There are many other interesting things in The King of Warsaw. The atmosphere it evokes is truly admirable – all the vodka shots, herring, prison slang, pomades, crab served with dill and other elements of the gastronomic, tactile and linguistic reality of those times were meticulously recreated by the author. The city of Warsaw, portrayed like Istanbul (regardless of whether it is a creation or a faithful adherence to the facts), is also very interesting: European-Asian, luxurious-poor, Polish-Jewish. You can tell that the author did his research before writing The King of Warsaw. As Szczepan Twardoch said in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza:
I asked Piotr Paziński for a list of books about Jewish Warsaw. Monographs and such. I bought them on Allegro [a Polish auction site], together they piled up to over one metre tall. When I finished reading, something started to pan out in my head. Then I asked someone to photocopy the newspapers. Three titles, three months of each, 270 issues in total if I counted correctly? Reading them turned out to be tiresome because pre-war journalism in Poland was even worse than it is now, which is hard to believe. […]
The nerve with which this novel was written is also to be admired. The action is fast-paced, its construction is well-thought-out, and the suspense is ever-present. From the beginning, you know that something has gone wrong and you can guess what, since the action takes place in 1937, but thanks to the interweaving of different perspectives (at one moment we are in Warsaw in 1937, the next we are in Tel Aviv forty years later) you know that something went badly awry on a different, personal level as well. This overlapping of perspectives from different times is, by the way, a great way to crank up the anxiousness.
Perhaps not admiration, but at least sympathy, is also evoked by those who Szczepan Twardoch writes about in The King of Warsaw. Street children, thanks to their own stubbornness and lack of inhibitions, become here queens and kings. The Jewish gang atmosphere brings to mind Scorsese’s films or Once Upon a Time in America, although The King of Warsaw is definitely more political. Jewish (or Judeophile) gangsters beat up phalangists and students for numerus clausus. The main character’s lovers (or ‘partners’, or ‘lady friends’) are ‘new Jewish women’ – socialist sportswomen who read newspapers. The year is 1937, but the Jews are on top and such an arrangement of the world gives great pleasure to readers, although it is also a world which is cruel and violent – not only in the comic book sense but also in the real sense, directed against the defenceless and weak. This is one of the novel’s greatest assets – the characters are created in such a way that they arouse both sympathy and fear, and sometimes even disgust. Jakub Szapiro is the most fantastically ambiguous character, but the rest are also unpredictable at times. The King of Warsaw sometimes stops being a comic book and gets truly cruel. Twardoch has managed to not only intriguingly capture the phenomenon of ruthlessness but also to convincingly describe the world which gave birth to it.
There is also some pleasure in the analogies with the present-day – yes, unintentional and unnecessarily stressed in discussions, which has made the author repeatedly flinch during interviews. Militias, violence in the streets, phalangists and ONR (National Radical Camp) members, brownshirts – all this somehow resonates with today’s political climate, although the main difference is that in Twardoch’s world, the left side of the spectrum also has its militants ready to defend their ideals with force.
It is truly a complete novel for men, all-inclusive. Women are supposedly emancipated, but only as long as it suits them. They can be wild, they can read newspapers or declare, quite frankly, to ‘love lovemaking’. However, it no longer suits these women to not have their whole existence revolve around Jakub Szapiro. But even this, if you get an understanding of Twardoch’s style, can be accepted, because somehow it combines nicely with this cliché-comic book-sensational format and it is hard to expect any innovation in this matter from this author.
To summarise, The King of Warsaw is a novel with verve, funny and fast; a very well-written sensational retro story. It will surely make for a decent TV series or a film – the publishers already announce the purchase of the filming rights by the Canal Plus network on the cover. Any other attempts to find meaning and subtexts will lead the reader astray. I do not know who Twardoch was before, but in The King of Warsaw he comes off as someone like Eduardo Mendoza from Cat Fight, for example. Historical facts – or rumours, as in the case of the coup d’état – serve him as a framework over which he pulls an invented story – for fun, for entertainment, for interesting stylisation.
Is this enough? It depends on your expectations. If you are looking for something more than entertainment, you might be a little disappointed. Otherwise, you will spend a few pleasant hours with the book.
The biggest criticism that can be directed towards The King of Warsaw is that the unquestionable dexterity with which it was written overshadows all the rest, whatever that might be. Twardoch’s writing skills allow him to spin a story that shines with its own light on each page, enchants, arouses admiration for the quality of its craftsmanship and cunningness. Every detail is finalised and fitting, and most things are perfectly dosed to make the story enjoyable, quick to read and entertaining. The King of Warsaw is basically one big magic trick, and you either accept it or you don’t.
The King of Warsaw – Szczepan Twardoch
English translation: Sean Gasper Bye
Number of pages: 426