Title: The Emperor of Lies
Author: Steve Sem-Sandberg
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Genre: Literary Fiction
When I first started reading, “The Emperor of Lies” I was a bit daunted by the size of the book – 700 pages and that too of Holocaust literature, I was almost prepared to be depressed and miserable. However, I soon realized that there are times in life when may be one has to read a certain book for the sheer power of its writing and not always because of the content. There have been a lot of books written about the Holocaust, so much so that it has become a genre in its own and to add to this is, “The Emperor of Lies”, by Steve Sem-Sandberg, translated competently by Sarah Death.
The Emperor of Lies is a fictionalized account (but of course) of events from the actual archives of Poland’s Ghetto from September 1942 to January 1945. This ghetto was the second largest in Poland set up by the Nazis as a holding center to transport Jews to the concentration camps.
The “Emperor of Lies” was Mordechai Chaim Murkowski, a 63 year old Polish Jew, who was appointed by the Nazis to take charge of the ghetto and its functioning. In the book, he is known as the Chairman. Murkowski before the Nazi regime was a prosperous businessman. Although he reported directly to the Nazis, he had an authoritarian rule over the Jews at the ghetto. His primary function was to ensure that the ghetto was provided with electricity, work, food, heat, housing, and health and welfare.
There are two coins to every story. While Murkowski was responsible for keeping half the Jew population in the ghetto alive by making them manufactures a variety of goods for the German Army. This ensured that this ghetto was the last to be liquidated. While Murkowski believed in, “Work sets you free”, he also is portrayed to be ignorant, vulgar, power-hungry, who was attracted to women and children. On one hand he is made to seem to be a Nazi collaborator and on the other, shown to be a saviour of the Jews.
The book is hard hitting. Sem-Sandberg takes the reader to the very heart of evil and makes you see things as they were in those times. The Emperor of Lies also gives voice to quarter of a million Jews of Lodz who vanished without a trace. He paints an honest picture of corruption at the Jewish Ghetto Administration Council. The novel is unique – in the sense that it provides a complete picture of Murkowski and his actions. It does take sides and does not want the reader to. The Emperor of Lies does not paint a pretty picture. The reader will cringe in most places and might be tempted to let go of the book. However this is a different take on the Holocaust. A book that you should read if you want to know more about those times.