In The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He’s a psychiatrist, who was once respected, but now must deal with the hardships of the ghetto and the change in his station. While still respected, he’s no longer one of the elite as the ghetto has destroyed the social order from the “Before Times.” The voice of Cohen is rich and unique. Zimler stays with him throughout the novel and creates a solid character. Cohen fluctuates between compassion and anger, humor and grave melancholy. It’s refreshing to read a character who is complex and whose actions cause him remorse.
While, technically a mystery, the novel is more about life in the ghetto than a compelling puzzle to solve. Part of the confusion stems from the title. It seems as though there will be coded puzzles throughout the novel and the anagrams do refer to the garbled names of people in order to hide their true identities; however, the anagrams fade below the surface as the novel progresses. The final anagram/puzzle is so hidden that “only a Jew would know both Polish and German well enough to understand that linka was string and Flor was gauze.” For the reader it is next to impossible and the narrator doesn’t care to share this information until he’s been told by an accomplice to the crime.
Zimler’s description of the early days of the Warsaw ghetto show a place full of heartache and desperation. The black market thrives as Jews cross over to the Christian side through hidden tunnels. People try to sustain the normalcy of life through music and cafes. But how soon before that goes away? The novel concludes before things become more terrible in the ghetto. We know what will happen eventually, but the novel sticks to the time frame of Cohen’s perspective.
One issue with the narrator is that as he tells the story to a man, his current state is that of an ibbur, kind of like a ghost. This didn’t trouble me; I assumed it was part of Jewish culture, but it is kind of cheesy. It does add another layer to the story, but for readers who do not enjoy the fantastic, it may be a problem.
The Warsaw Anagrams provides a glimpse of life in the ghetto and the suffering involved. Full of interesting characters who must make decisions, in which they question their morals, the novel leads the reader through the twisting streets, cramped apartments, and secret lives constrained by the ghetto walls. The novel is published by Overlook Press and available on Amazon.