Before I start, I won’t pretend to be a good writer. I personally don’t care too much about grammar. For me, writers can do whatever they want as long as what’s written conveys a clear story or thesis in a logical and concise way. But when writers irresponsibly stray from the topic, drag out their ideas, or try to use cutesy grammatical styles, I lose my mind.
Unfortunately, Plunder is just that. The book sucked. Menachem Kaiser took us through like five tangentially related storylines that he really wanted to tie together but couldn’t. The major narrative is about his attempts to reclaim his grandfather’s pre-WW2 property through the Polish legal system. Along the way he meets a group of treasure hunters, explores tunnels in the hinterlands of Poland, discovers that his grandfather’s cousin has a famous Holocaust memoir within the Polish conspiracy-loving community, and may or may not find somebody else’s treasure in the epilogue. The various stories don’t conclude in any substantial way. It’s clear Kaiser was insecure about it too because he tried to give us the “the moral is that there is no moral” line in the last chapter.
Kaiser spends the majority, or a large part (who really knows? (you know, I’d say it’s probably the majority but I didn’t actually calculate it out)), writing sentences like this one. Rambling nonsense and rogue parentheticals about his inner dialogue that an even remotely good editor would cut. He spent pages going back and forth about his moral qualms about a situation he found himself in only to contradict his morals and apologize for it later. It was lazy. The big problem is Plunder would be about 50 pages without these pointless musings, run-on sentences, and hackneyed “modern” syntaxes.
Sophomore year of college I took Introduction to Painting. After one of the first classes I pulled my professor aside and asked why artists like Picasso or Pollock could make millions on works of art that I could’ve done. For the next half-hour he walked me through art books of Picasso’s early work. It looked nothing like what I know now as Picasso. The paintings were insane. My teacher then said, “Once you can do this, you can do that (pointing at one of his later, simpler pieces).” Modern art is impressive because it pushes the bounds of what “the best” art is and how it can be expressed. Kaiser isn’t close to being a good enough to experiment as much as he did with syntax, symbolism, repetition, etc. Knowing from my own mediocre knowledge how bad Kaiser’s writing was, I dislike him even more because you’d have to assume that the editor must have cut out much of the BS and Kaiser refused to accept the edits. Not only is his writing pretentious but his portrait in the back of the book says it all. It validated everything I’d been thinking the whole time... Huge douche.
All of that said, it wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read. Plunder examines some interesting topics relating to and transcending the Holocaust. How do we tell a story that carries so much weight yet we’re so displaced from? Who owns the right to tell the story? Now that so few survivors remain, what does a secondhand account of the Holocaust look like?
He also makes interesting points about the Nazis. They did a lot of stuff. They advanced science. They hoarded art and gold in complex tunnel systems that are still not fully explored or mapped out. They rethought and developed military strategy in profound ways. So yes, of course there will be conspiracies about them. But at the end of the day, they also killed six million Jews and three million ethnic Poles in the biggest genocide in the history of humanity. Kaiser makes the argument that fascination about the Nazi’s in anything but the Holocaust is harmful as it detracts from their atrocities. But then he continues. And continues. And then I began to resent even the good points he made because he force-fed them.
The first thing I did after finishing Plunder was check Amazon’s reviews to make sure I wasn’t completely alone. I’m not. Plunder is what you get when a JV writer with thought-provoking ideas decides that an interesting personal story needs to be the next great American novel. The book is a flop. It should’ve been a New Yorker article.
- J. Menges