Robert Alter

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

Making novels out of the holocaust has proved to be a hopelessly self-contradictory enterprise for most writers. The conventional novel, with its formal coherence of beginning, middle and end, betrays this subject, which by its nature destroys coherence in our understanding of history, theology, moral choice and human character. Leslie Epstein's quietly controlled, eerily lucid novel ["King of the Jews"]…. is remarkable for choosing an aspect of the subject and developing a special narrative mode that overcome the intrinsic difficulty of coping imaginatively with genocide….

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Mr. Epstein intelligently focuses his narrative not on the obscene mechanisms of mass murder itself, but on the morally ambiguous politics of survival of a Judenrat (Jewish Council) in a Polish ghetto.

Isaiah Chaim Trumpelman, the chief elder of the novel's Judenrat, is a figure clearly modeled on a historical personage, the megalomaniacal Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who under the Nazis ruled the ghetto of Lodz with a flamboyant combination of regal grandiosity and political shrewdness. But the town in which the fictional ghetto-suburb of Balut is placed remains unnamed and, in a related strategy, the words "German" and "Nazi" are never allowed to appear. Instead, the murderers are referred to as the Others or the Occupying Power; storm troopers become Warriors; the SS are called Death's-Headers. This manipulation of names contributes to the peculiar generalizing effect of the novel as a whole.

From the actual details of ghettos established by the Nazis as way-stations to genocide, Mr. Epstein has created a kind of grim moral fable that often reminds one of the fantastic yet profoundly historical narrative inventions that Kafka produced in short pieces such as "An Old Manuscript" or Nabokov in "Invitation to a Beheading." In this case, the effect of the fabulous is achieved through scrupulous adherence to historical fact, the one odd exception being the virtual exclusion of Zionism from the ghetto scene…. (p. 1)

Mr. Epstein's Trumpelman is a character of outrageous contradictions—which seems the only appropriate way to represent these Judenrat leaders who were both violently thrust and seductively drawn into a position of absolute power and absolute impotence in which no human being could continue to function with any moral coherence. A physician with dubious credentials and an insurance-swindler to boot, Trumpelman is something of a charlatan, but he is also in many respects a man of fierce integrity, devoted to his patients and paternally compassionate toward the children of the orphanage that he directs. (pp. 1, 44)

Trumpelman is a genius in the art of personal survival, and as the novel unfolds, he almost succeeds, as a grudging collaborator with the mass-murderers, in saving more of his people than could have been saved in any other way. No work of fiction has opened up so fully the unbearable moral dilemma in which the Judenrat members found themselves, governing with a pistol at their heads, administering the processes of death, corrupted of course by their awful power, yet trying to preserve life when there was no real way to preserve it.

"King of the Jews" is also noteworthy for the fine understatement and suggestive obliquity with which it tells its painful story. The announcement of the outbreak of World War II at the end of the first chapter is exemplary. As in a child's story (and the narrator is a survivor who might well have been a child at the time), a small speck is seen in the placid September sky, then the silver wings of a plane, which "lazily dropped," then bombs tumbling from it "all the way to the ground." Instead of the Hollywood-style hellish squadrons of more conventional writers, Mr. Epstein defamiliarizes the horror through this oddly idyllic perspective and thus reminds us sharply of the horrendously anti-idyllic nature of what is about to happen. It is a lesson in what artistic restraint can do to help us imagine the dark places of our history. (pp. 44-5)

Robert Alter, "A Fable of Power," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 4, 1979, pp. 1, 44-5.

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