Book Review: The Chosen Ones

Steve Sem-Sandberg; Anna Paterson, trans.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Hardcover. 576 pp. $27.00
ISBN: 978-0374122805

The fact that Austria recently very nearly elected a far-right candidate who boldly flirted with the iconography and language of the National Socialist movement for its president is surely a direct consequence of its notable failure (in contrast to Germany) to have a serious reckoning with its dark past. One can only hope that Steve Sem-Sandberg’s magnum opus will help encourage younger Austrians to confront their history.

Born in 1958, the author is a Swedish journalist, novelist, non-fiction writer and translator living in Vienna who is as adept at portraying historical realities as he is at witnessing disturbing truths of the human soul.
In a previous, highly acclaimed novel The Emperor of Lies (2009), Sem-Sandberg delivered a chilling portrait of life in the Lodz Ghetto during the four years it housed a starving population of 200,000 Jews prior to its liquidation in August 1944. Through its epic Dickensian scale and portrait of an entire society, the novel rendered up intimate and disturbing glimpses of historical figures such as Heinrich Himmler and Adam Czerniakow (head of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat who eventually committed suicide) and particularly the figure of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, whose autocratic rule in the Lodz ghetto created controversies that are still being debated by historians, ethicists, and others.

Now Sem-Sandberg turns his fearless gaze on a lesser-known evil, the origins of genocide in the Nazi regime’s euthanasia program (Aktion T4) in Austria.

Some historians have argued that roughly 200,000 were murdered for the sake of racial purity and the “health” of Aryan culture. As he did in his previous book, Sem-Sendberg makes unflinching and harrowing use of historical documents and testimony throughout The Chosen Ones.

Yet this long novel never feels like a history lesson; instead, graced by its author’s indelible gift for expressing the darkly absurd, it restlessly interweaves a variety of perspectives on the horrific reality at its center, moving fluidly between the actions, thoughts, and voices of its gripping characters.

The story begins in 1941 and is set in Am Spiegelgrund, a children’s clinic in Austria, which, during Germany’s annexation, became part of the Nazi euthanasia program. This often labyrinthine narrative unfolds through the alternating perspectives of Adrian Ziegler, a 10-year-old child from a dysfunctional and impoverished family (his father has been damningly labeled as a ‘gypsy’) who is one of the clinic’s early residents, and Anna Katschenka, a wildly deluded and obedient nurse (“efficient, unswervingly loyal and invariably sensible”) employed there.

Through Adrian’s eyes we witness numerous children disappear from their beds. In addition to lethal injections, some of them are the subjects of obscene experiments in experiments in “encephalography” and “hereditary biology.” Aside from those deemed irredeemably unruly, like the protagonist, the program also includes the disabled and ill.

Among dozens of other troubling characters the author brings to life in these pages the most disturbing is surely Doctor Jekelius (1905-1952), an historical figure responsible for sending over 4,000 patients to the gas chambers. He was later captured by the Red Army and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in a Soviet labor camp where he eventually died of cancer. Yet shockingly, he is not the worst doctor we encounter in these pages.

The author’s unsparing prose exposes the heartbreaking horrors and torments of this system of betrayed children, murderous nurses and doctors, and the usual unheroic bystanders, yet this narrative is brimming with beautiful, even poetic language that ultimately crystalizes and intensifies the very bad news about the human condition it delivers.

After reading the author’s earlier Emperor of Lies, Hilary Mantel declared that it was “fiction operating at its best, to close the gap between past and present, between them and us: not through sentiment but through real understanding … I find it difficult to think of any book that has had such an immediate and profound impact on me.”
It is hard to imagine that The Chosen Ones, with all its disturbing revelations, with leave any less of an impression on its fortunate readers. Sem-Sandberg’s magisterial and at times merciless novel is well served by translator Anna Paterson’s sparkling and colloquial rendering. One can only hope that this brave and important work will find readers everywhere and perhaps also ignite many soul-searching discussions in Austria where historical awareness is so long overdue.

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