Jakub Szapiro knows about the road not taken. The putative protagonist of Szczepan Twardoch’s heartbreaking “The King of Warsaw,” Szapiro is living with the results of choices made decades earlier, when he embodied this novel’s title, as a champion boxer working as an enforcer for a crime lord in 1937 Poland.
When we first meet Szapiro, he is 37 and in his prime, a beautiful, sexy man beloved by the crowd, valued by his boss, and the father of two young sons, whom he adores. The star heavyweight of the Jewish Maccabi club in the main event of the capital’s team championship, he is facing off against an Aryan boxer, whom he quickly and efficiently dispatches. With anti-Semitism on the rise, Jewish Warsaw rejoices.
In the audience watching is a very different type of Jew, Mojzesz Bernsztajn, a skinny 17-year-old from a frum — religiously observant — family. Although he has just seen Szapiro drag his father out of the house to be killed for unpaid debts, he cannot help but admire the charming, exultant boxer and becomes his protége, shedding the payos (side locks) of his Orthodox family and letting the wealthy fighter dress him like a Christian — and a fledgling fellow gangster.
It is this scrawny youth who is purportedly writing this recollection from the vantage point of 50 years later, when, as a retired Israeli army officer, now calling himself Mojzesz Inbar, he has learned a thing or two about fighting and the cost of violence. Or has he? These three narrators — Szapiro, Bernsztajn, and Inbar— alternate and, at times, merge, playing out a personal tragedy on the cusp of genocide.
The Holocaust looms large in “The King of Warsaw,” although not every character has the perspicacity to see it. Emilia, Szapiro’s common-law wife, is one of the more aware. She wants to emigrate to Palestine and raise their sons in Tel Aviv, but Szapiro dismisses her fears: “I’m not a Jew,” he says. “I’m Szapiro. And Warsaw is our city.” To Bernsztajn, Szapiro is apparently correct. Through his eyes, the reader sees the ridiculous privilege of Szapiro’s life, including unfettered access to a beautiful Polish woman and the undying dedication of one of his exes, now a madam at the gang’s favorite brothel.
Of course, not everything is as it initially appears in this work, the first of the noted Polish author’s to be translated into English. In Twardoch’s world, the brutality is constant, with killings and dismemberments recounted in almost loving detail. It is also, as translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye, often poetic. A man being tortured “began to focus intensely on the taste of the mouth of a certain boy he’d spent a heady two weeks with in Rome last year, the taste of wine and pasta … the soft hands of his mother, Aurelia Bobinska, née Rataj; then he suffered much, and then he died.”
As that passage suggests, for all its physicality, this novel also has a dreamlike quality, with the logic of an especially grim fairy tale. When Bernsztajn says, early on, “I am not a person,” it may make sense to believe him. Likewise, attention should be paid to his vision of a sperm whale with burning eyes that he sees floating above the city, “moving his powerful, muscular bulk slowly, his mighty head brushing the roofs of the apartment houses, knocking off a few tiles.” The whale — a hallucination or the manifestation of something yet to come? — “touches something inside me I would rather remain hidden,” the narrator says. “Yet all will be laid bare.”
Before this happens, in a stunning final twist, there is a lot of ground to be covered. Some of it, in this 400-plus-page book, is hard going. Szapiro’s world is populated by a multitude of unsavory characters, from politicians, journalists, and unlucky civilians to one of the more memorable psychopaths of contemporary fiction: Pantaleon Karpinski, whose long hair hides a second face — his “devil brother” — on the back of his head. Their savagery is constant and, even with the beauty of the writing, can be hard to stomach. In addition, the many names, as well as the characters’ propensity for lapsing into Yiddish (translated in footnotes), can make this a difficult book to climb into, even before the unreliability of the various narrators becomes apparent.
As the lumbering beast of Bernsztajn’s imagination approaches with all the weight of history or fate, the scope of the tragedy becomes clear. For those who hang in, the revelations are cathartic, tying all the raw and bloody ends together at last with a beautiful, fierce justice.
THE KING OF WARSAW
By Szczepan Twardoch
Translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye
Amazon Crossing, 416 pp., $24.95
Clea Simon is the author of “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com