Violence and Human Reality: Talking with Szczepan Twardoch
The King of Warsaw by Szczepan Twardoch is a literary phenomenon in the author’s native Poland. Published there in 2016, it rapidly rose to the top of the bestseller lists despite tackling some of the most painful and sensitive topics in Polish history—particularly anti-Semitism in Polish society in the lead-up to World War II. Twarodch’s novel blends history, fast-paced noir, and elements of magic realism; it consolidated his reputation as one of the most exciting novelists in Poland today, and became his first book to be published in English.
The novel is set in Warsaw in 1937, two years before WWII, when the city’s population was about one-third Jewish. It tells the story of Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and enforcer for the mob boss Jan “Buddy” Kaplica. Despite the gangsters’ brutality, they’re folk heroes in the city’s poor Jewish neighborhoods. When Kaplica’s men aren’t squeezing protection money out of local storekeepers, they’re bashing the heads of anti-Semitic and fascist thugs.
Meanwhile, the government is facing attacks from the left and the right, with these battles frequently spilling over into the streets. As Poland teeters on the brink, the Jews of Warsaw debate how to respond. Many advocate abandoning Poland altogether and building a new Jewish state in Palestine, but Jakub feels his home is in Warsaw.
These action-packed events are recalled through the hazy memory of Mojżesz Bernsztajn—a teenager whose father was killed by Kaplica’s enforcers, but whom Jakub took under his wing. Decades later, living in Israel under a new name, Mojżesz is writing his memoirs—but his memory is failing him, slipping back and forth in time, and he mixes fantasy and reality while wondering if he really is who he thinks he is.
My translation into English of The King of Warsaw was published last month by Amazon Crossing. It’s often said that a translator is a book’s closest reader, and the complex layers of this novel have left me with plenty of questions. So I wrote to Szczepan Twardoch to learn about his writing process, the history behind this book, and the themes of violence and masculinity in his novel.
The Rumpus: The King of Warsaw is set in 1937, two years before the start of World War II, at a time when Poland was a dynamic and diverse country, but facing political and social upheaval. What attracted you to this setting?
Szczepan Twardoch: I chose 1937 for a simple reason—in 1937, there were rumors circulating about a planned coup d’état in Poland, which became one of the main plot points of The King of Warsaw. To this day, historians are unsure whether there was any reality behind these rumors or if they were simply invented by the opposition to use against the authorities. But for the purposes of my novel I decided to treat these rumors as true. That’s it as far as the particular year. As far as interwar Warsaw, I’ve always been fascinated by worlds of complex ethnic identity, and this intersection of Polishness and Jewishness in its various shades is one of those worlds. And one not far from my own complex and complicated ethnic identity.
Rumpus: You’re from Silesia, a part of Poland with its own strong regional traditions of culture and language. It seems clear to me your identity as an “outsider” from Polish culture deeply informs your writing. How do you see your identity in relation to your creative work?
Twardoch: Upper Silesia, where I’m from, has been a part of Poland for a relatively brief period, at least by European standards—in part for one hundred years, and as a whole for seventy-five years. Prior to that, Poland’s and Silesia’s histories took different tracks, starting in the fourteenth century with Silesia was first incorporated into the Kingdom of Bohemia, followed by Austria, and then, from the middle of the eighteenth century onward, Prussia. All the while its Slavic language was maintained among the peasant class, but it never developed its own, strong ethnic identity. Silesians who climbed the social ladder had the significant experience of abandoning their first, home language—initially for German, then, after 1945, for Polish. During World War I, many Silesians serving in the German army noticed the similarity between their borderland ethnic identity and the situation of the Alsatians, who were torn between Germanness and Frenchness as we are between Polishness and Germanness. This was particularly visible during the interwar period, when Silesia was divided between Poland and Germany, and during WWII, when many Silesians—including, for instance, my grandfather—were forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht.
Maybe this is why Silesian nationality (in the ethnic, rather than the American, political sense of that word) has always been a question of choice, with brothers very often choosing different identities—one considering himself German, the other Polish. Meanwhile to “true” Germans and Poles, Silesians’ Germanness or Polishness has always been to some degree suspicious and dubious. Hence, perhaps, the tentative attempt over the last century to develop our own individual ethnic identity.
Without a doubt my interest in the identity of Warsaw Jews, who were also ethnically unstable and dynamic, easily code-switching between languages (something I also do, moving fluidly from Polish to Silesian when talking with my loved ones, for instance), adapting language codes to the situation—all of this is a result of my own shaky, complicated ethnic self-identification. I am a Silesian; Silesian is my first language. I write in Polish; I also mainly think in Polish, and Polish culture is dear to me, and as a writer I am part of it. But at the same time German culture is also very dear to me—if only for the sake of my still-living, now hundred-year-old grandfather, a very important figure for me and who was also very active in that realm.
Rumpus: The Warsaw of before the war was completely destroyed, socially and even physically. Yet you recreate it with a tremendous amount of detail, including many real locations and even historical figures. How, as a writer, do you recreate a lost world for your readers?
Twardoch: There’s no shortage of material on pre-war Warsaw. First and foremost, I use maps, street atlases, and also photo archives from the pre-war city government and preserved documentary films. As far as the soul of the city—what people lived on—you get the best sense from magazines and newspapers of the era, along with the invaluable classifieds sections. For the purposes of The King of Warsaw, I studied one hundred issues each of three important, pre-war newspapers: the anti-Semitic ABC (which gave me an article about throwing Jews out of the army that formed an important plot element of the book), the centrist Warsaw Courier, and the leftist-Zionist Our Review.
Rumpus: How did your ideas of the story and characters emerge in the midst of this research process, and what did the rest of the process of writing the book look like?
Twardoch: I usually write very systematically—meaning I start from an idea, which I then expand into a treatment, and based on that, I write the real novel. The specific idea of pre-war Warsaw germinated during the research for one of my previous novels, Morphine. That book included the character of Tata Tasiemka, an authentic Warsaw gangster and also a labor and socialist activist, who formed the model for Buddy Kaplica. Certain elements of Jakub Szapiro’s biography are based on the life of Szapsel Rotholc, a Jewish lightweight boxer who became a policeman in the ghetto during the war, though he never dabbled in gangsterism. As for my entirely fictional characters, I don’t know how to describe how they come about—the entire process of “creating” them takes place in the subconscious part of my brain.
When it comes to why I wrote the book the way I did, for instance incorporating magical realism or fantastical elements, the only answer I’ve ever known is “because this seemed like the right way to do it.” I write using my intuition.
The thing I find hardest about writing a novel is how long-term the process is, the fact that every day you have to write something that will be finished in a year at the earliest, or even later. In any event, I never wait for inspiration or an influx of creativity. I don’t experience writer’s block either—on the contrary, I’m disciplined. Writing is my job; I set myself a daily quota and every day I sit down at my computer and write for as long as it takes.
Rumpus: You’ve described The King of Warsaw as being first and foremost about violence. What about violence interests you and why did you want to center this book around it?
Twardoch: Violence is one of the basic substances of human reality, which we in our crystal palace try to forget, enclosing it in the Hobbesian framework of the state, granting a monopoly on violence to an overlord who, in turn, makes a commitment to a social compact in which violence is only used in moderation and for the common good. Meanwhile violence has not disappeared from our lives; it only lies dormant. Timothy Snyder does a fantastic job of describing this in Black Earth—how violence suddenly explodes in times and places where the state disappears.
Rumpus: This book covers not only physical violence, but psychological violence as well—do you see psychological violence as fundamentally the same as physical violence, or are there differences?
Twardoch: Psychological violence is often, though not always, based on the threat of physical violence, and in its cruelest form it seems to me that it can be just as severe. The culmination of physical violence is murder, while psychological violence destroys a person from the inside, the internal fabric of their character disintegrates and perhaps they keep living, only now internally devastated.
Rumpus: Aside from the clear themes of religion, ethnicity, and political identity, the book is also very focused on masculinity: on becoming a man, on masculinity and power, even the physicality of male bodies. What role does masculinity play in this book, and do you see it as connected to the theme of violence?
Twardoch: Despite a widely held view in Poland, I do not consider violence to be characteristic exclusively of men—women are just as capable of it, though to be sure, women’s violence takes somewhat different forms and has somewhat different aims. Masculinity in its most toxic form is in fact one of the main subjects of The King of Warsaw, and so is the male body. Looking at this book now in retrospect, five years after I wrote it, I think it may be a sort of reckoning with masculinity, me making an attempt to analyze it and define it. As I was writing The King of Warsaw I took up boxing, then switched over to Muay Thai and kickboxing. This is the first sport I’ve started practicing in my life; the intimate, often painful contact with one’s own body that comes along with training and sparring has also somehow expanded my literary horizons and interests. From the meditation of lifting weights, to tumultuous sparring matches, through fear and anger, everything that sweeps through the body.
Through better understanding the body I better understand human beings, who always exist at the intersection of the body and intelligence. We are used to imagining intelligence as independent, distinct from the body—which is not entirely true. Corporality is Dionysian and as a writer I think I feel much more comfortable within the Dionysian than in Apollonian rationality.
Rumpus: Do you see a relationship between that toxic masculinity and the characters’ conflicted ethnic and social identities? In the book it seems like the two in some ways feed into one another.
Twardoch: The relationship between them is based first and foremost on the fact that they take place inside a single person and, for instance, for a man who comes from a persecuted ethnic minority or the exploited working class, it’s hard to find an area where he can develop his dignity and sense of self-worth in a “healthy,” non-toxic way.
Rumpus: While the subject matter in the book is so dark, overall it somehow stays in my mind as stylish, glamorous, even somehow romantic. I think most readers will see a link with the noir tradition—was that a conscious connection, and were you influenced by the great books and films of that genre?
Twardoch: Yes, of course, The King of Warsaw intentionally draws on the traditions of noir. That’s why its pages are inhabited by the typical characters of that genre—sensitive tough guys, noble whores, and so on.
In the case of The King of Warsaw it was a sort of pact with my reader—I’ll give them fast-paced, sensational action, expecting in return to confront them with a reality that they won’t necessarily find pleasant.
Rumpus: And despite those unpleasant realities, The King of Warsaw was a huge success in Poland. It’s now been published in the US and Germany, and a TV series is on the way in Poland. What do you think accounts for the reception it’s had?
Twardoch: I honestly have no idea. I’ve never understood what determines a book’s success or failure. I write the kind of books I’d like to read myself, and by some miracle, by doing so they suit others’ tastes as well.
The reception my books get in different languages is definitely dramatically different. For instance, in Germany my novels sell relatively well, but above all they’ve enjoyed a fantastic critical reception, I’ve had a large number of reviews which I believe were exclusively positive. Meanwhile my two novels published in France have passed completely and utterly unnoticed, as if they fell into a black hole. I have no idea why that is.
Rumpus: I know you read in other languages—as a writer, what thoughts do you have about translation as a creative practice? Has anything changed for you in the writing process, knowing that your words will probably end up in English, German, French?
Twardoch: I don’t want to philosophize about the art of translation, because I don’t know much about it. For myself, when I’m reading a novel in English or a newspaper in German, I don’t keep a running translation into Polish in my head, I remain in the language of the original. Without a doubt translation is a literary, creative activity—but you’re the one who should be talking about that, not me. When I’m writing I don’t think about translations, though I’m aware that I’m not only writing for a Polish reader. Even so, it doesn’t change anything in my writing, because in any case I always write however it comes out.
Rumpus: What do you hope that English-language readers will get from The King of Warsaw?
Twardoch: Maybe a relationship with a world that is at once far away, unfamiliar, and exotic—but at the same time close, in some way, to so many Americans whose Polish and Jewish ancestors disembarked at Ellis Island.
Photograph of Szczepan Twardoch by Zuza Krajewska.