Leslie Epstein Jane Larkin Crain - Essay

Jane Larkin Crain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fictionalizing the experiences of those 160,000 Polish Jews who were first herded into the ghetto of Lodz and later deported to the Nazi death camps, this novel rehearses yet again the question of Jewish "complicity" in Hitler's war against the Jews. In mannered and inflated prose, meant to evoke the narrative voice of Eastern European folklore, King of the Jews attempts to represent life inside the ghetto in terms that will fairly bristle with moral meanings and ironies. At the heart of this tendentious enterprise is one I. C. Trumpelman, head of the ghetto's Judenrat, a strutting, half-mad, power-hungry tyrant, and his cohorts on the council—venal, self-pitying, spineless Jews who at best passively acquiesce to the destruction of their fellows, and at worst, actively seek their own aggrandizement through betrayal and chicanery.

Masked by the author's stylistic tricksterism, the realities of ghetto life—the hunger, cold, filth, degradation, terror, and death, as well as the fellow-feeling and heroism—take on an air of pseudomytholgy. As one reads this book, it is as if 6,000,000 Jews hadn't really suffered and died at a particular time and place at all, but had merely been conjured up by Leslie Epstein as background for his fanciful exploration of the Eternal Enigma of the Jew.

"There is something in history that makes all men act the same!" cries one of the characters toward the novel's close, implying that the "persecuted" and the "persecutor" are as one. Somewhere else, Trumpelman himself exclaims: "This is what a Jew is…. A Jew is a shit like everyone else." It is in the service of this sort of vulgar perversity that the author has felt free to trivialize the Nazi Holocaust.

Jane Larkin Crain, in a review of "King of the Jews," in Saturday Review (© 1979 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 7, March 31, 1979, p. 53.