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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Review of King of Warsaw

The King of Warsaw
By Szczepan Twardoch
Amazon Crossing, 2016, 2020.

This novel, translated into English by Sean Gasper Bye, takes place in Warsaw in 1937 as fascists' influence in Poland begins to bubble. Hitler and the Nazis increasingly brutalize Jews next door. Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer, works as an enforcer for a Polish leftist gangster. When he's not knocking out fascists, in or out of the ring, the heavyweight is strategizing with his fellow mobsters in a brothel owned by his ex.

Featuring a few twists along the way, revealing more of the plot would involve spoilers. But the mood is dark. Gruesome and sexually explicit details permeate the story. Szapiro is an anti-hero and painfully few of the other characters possess enough redeeming qualities to outweigh the bad.

The characters, despite their disturbing features, are tangible. A blurb from the back of the book states, "Twardoch's depictions of individual characters, atmospheres, and political currents are precise, vivid, and ecstatic, almost to the point of madness." Only the world "almost" is off. It makes for a clear yet pessimistic scene. The King of Warsaw is the opposite of life-affirming.

And yet, with the rise of populism and fascism across the world, this tale is certainly relevant for our era. It asks the questions, "What makes a good person? And is there such a thing?" Though the description of violence can be excessive and the lives of many of the characters bleak, Twardoch's philosophical arguments expertly woven within the narrative are worth considering.

The King of Warsaw is for those interested in learning about the different political factions and the realities of mob life in Poland in the late 1930s, those who enjoy reading about a Jewish tough rough up fascists, and those who don't mind a graphic description of someone's throat getting slit.

A couple notes:
Here's the original Polish version De Krol.
It has also been made into a tv show.

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