Bodies in Trouble
The Chosen Ones
By Steve Sem-Sandberg
Translated by Anna Paterson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Steve Sem-Sandberg writes long, lurid novels about particularly disreputable aspects of the Nazi period. The Emperor of Lies (2009) focused on Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Jewish Council in the Lodz ghetto. His new novel, The Chosen Ones—translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson—is about the notorious Viennese clinic Am Spiegelgrund, where mentally and physically disabled children were murdered as part of the Nazis’ forced euthanasia program.
The novel centers on Adrian Ziegler, who, having been taken into the foster system as a young child, is declared “asocial” and unfit to be educated. Ziegler is sent to Spiegelgrund, which also served as a reform school.
There he meets Heinrich Gross, the real-life director of the children’s psychiatric clinic. In addition to sending many children to an early death, Gross, who was also trained as a neurologist, ghoulishly performed research on the brains of his victims. Decades after the war, his findings regularly appeared in respected scientific journals.
Ziegler is based on Friedrich Zawrel, a survivor of the clinic who was unable to integrate into society after the war and fell into a life of petty crime. Zawrel and Gross met again in 1975 when Zawrel, accused in a robbery case, was assigned to Gross for psychiatric evaluation. Fearful that his wartime past would be revealed, Gross recommended a lengthy sentence for Zawrel. Undaunted, Zawrel began a campaign to bring Gross to justice. Gross was finally brought to trial in 1997 but his lawyers managed to have the proceedings postponed indefinitely due to his failing health. Gross died in 2005 without ever having been convicted. Three years earlier Zawrel had been officially declared a victim of National Socialism. Thanks to his efforts, the terrible events at Spiegelgrund—including the murder of 800 children—were finally acknowledged.
In an afterword, Sem-Sandberg explains that although he relied on historical documentation, such as case notes and survivor testimony, he “claim[s] neither historical accuracy nor even credibility.” This is surprising: we expect novelists to take liberties with the historical record but we assume they want to be credible. Moreover, this sentiment doesn’t fit the novel we’ve just read, which is faithful to historical events. Yet history is apparently not Sem-Sandberg’s aim: “the writer’s intents and aims are quite different from the historian’s.”
It’s unfortunate that Sem-Sandberg never elaborates on that difference, because readers are bound to finish this novel wondering about its purpose. What can it give us that a history of the Nazi euthanasia program cannot? One answer might be that whereas history offers structure, novels offer psychology. Getting inside the minds of those involved in even horrifying events might help us better understand both the events and the motivations of those involved. By focusing on individuals, novels might personalize or humanize even dehumanizing situations.
But the minds at the center of this book stubbornly resist description. In addition to Ziegler, Sem-Sandberg focuses on Anna Katschenka, a real-life nurse at the clinic. Never a true believer in the Nazi ideology of racial purity, Katschenka nonetheless is accused of complicity in its murderous regime. She genuinely abhors the suffering of her patients; in that sense she is much better nurse than many of her colleagues. Yet she also never questions the extreme doses of morphine and other painkillers she is asked to administer. The motives for her silence remain obscure. The only thing we know for sure is that she believes someone must care for these children. How she feels about the nature of that care is a mystery.
Ziegler is similarly opaque, hardly the crusader for justice that his real-life counterpart seems to have been. His postwar life, leading to the encounter with Gross and subsequent trial, is cursorily presented; we never even know why Ziegler is motivated to pursue Gross. However much we might sympathize with the degradation and punishments he is forced to endure, we never understand him. Ziegler isn’t the hero of his own life.
Other writers have written brilliantly about marginalized people who through bad luck, deprived childhoods, and economic precariousness are unable to take charge of their lives in the way we expect of fictional characters. But Sem-Sandberg instead turns Ziegler into a mouthpiece for his own condemnation of Spiegelgrund and the complacency of postwar Austria.
The result is unconvincing narration, in which Ziegler is made to express thoughts that have a complexity we otherwise never see in his character. In the ruins of postwar Vienna, for example, he is hired by a black marketeer to run a shop selling stolen shoes: “Adrian couldn’t think about anything except shoes. Nothing in which a human being clothes himself—or herself—could possibly be more humble than a pair of shoes, and nothing easier to wear out or get rid of.” The first sentence sounds like Ziegler; the second does not. He’s not one to make pronouncements on the human condition or to make that anachronistic nod to gender equality.
Katschenka is presented in similarly unconvincing fashion. Appearing as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of Gross’s colleagues, she finds herself paralyzed, uncertain how to testify:
Anna Katschenka doesn’t know what to say. She looks at the stone faces opposite her, then down at her hands—worn, rough-skinned but clean hands, used to doing what they intend, effectively, be it to tuck in a corner of a sheet or compress a vein before inserting the syringe needle; they are supportive, helpful and sometimes punitive hands and not the kind that are mere tools.
Nothing in Katschenka’s presentation has suggested she is reflective in this way. And if the initial description could plausibly be hers—“worn, rough-skinned but clean hands”—the final one doesn’t ring true. She’s not one to speak of hands, or anything, as “punitive” or “mere tools.”
But Ziegler and Katschenka aren’t even the most difficult characters to represent. That distinction goes to the figures at the heart of the novel: the children, often severely disabled, who have been sent to the clinic, ostensibly to be treated, if not cured, but in fact to be murdered. I say “figures” because the tiny patients can’t be said to be characters. They are always viewed from without. Here, for example, is Katschenka on her first day in the wards:
For Anna Katschenka, the children are still nameless and suffer from nameless diseases. She sees bodies: bodies just lying there, the already exhausted attachments to gigantic skulls that sometimes look absurdly beautiful, the distended cranial bones covered with blond baby hair and fragile networks of pale-blue blood vessels. Some bodies have been preyed on by tumours until so emaciated that the skeleton is about to pierce the skin, the ribcage protruding through the loose skin-folds over chest and abdomen, the sharp edges of forehead, cheek and jaw bones stretching the weakened sphincter muscles around eyes and mouth. The bodies emit shrieks and odd noises which are everywhere, the alien sounds ranging from hoarse shouting to gurgling and cooing. A little boy with cleft palate groans like a rutting animal when they are about the pass him, and Doctor Gross stops and points: Cheilognathopalatoschisis. Alcoholic mother who abandoned the infant when she saw what it looked like. One can’t entirely blame her! With an exaggeratedly caring gesture, the doctor helps the malformed child to stand by supporting his right arm. The split in the boy’s palate is wide enough for them to see straight into the moist membranes of his gullet. When Gross touches him, the boy’s coarse, wild groans change into helpless gurgles and she finds herself looking into a pair of shiny blue eyes that express a lucid awareness more alarming than any scream.
This passage shows that even when it expresses sympathy for the children—seen most clearly in the final sentence about the lucid awareness of the boy with the cleft palate—the novel is ambivalent towards them. The tone shifts from incomprehension (nameless children, nameless diseases) to fascination (the absurdly beautiful gigantic skulls) to horror (the shrieks and odd noises, the alien sounds). In the end, it’s not just Katschenka who finds the boy alarming. Sem-Sandberg finds himself with a dilemma: is there any way to represent these bodies without reducing them to well-intentioned caricature? No matter how sympathetic the portrayal, how is this not Grand Guignol? Unsurprisingly, the passages that focus on the children almost always take the form of objectifying lists. After pages of similar descriptions, one wonders whether the novel in fact agrees with a statement it offers without attaching to any particular character, although it is presumably a distillation of the Nazi credo: “Nature’s power of perversion is endless.”
For various reasons, then, Sem-Sandberg isn’t able to offer characters with clearly defined psychology. This inability is accompanied by more egregious failures of style and structure. The book is littered with clunky historical explanations: “It had been [Viennese city councilor] Gundel who drove the decision to merge the city’s many children’s homes and reform schools into one institution: Spiegelgrund was his creation.” (This is the first and last we hear of Gundel.) “TSC is a rare genetic disorder that leads to small, dense tumours forming in the brain and many other organs.” (No idea what TSC stands for: Sem-Sandberg never explains.)
A similar tendency to painful obviousness appears in regular didactic outbursts, as in this description of what the doctors thought of their patients, which barely passes as a glimpse into the perpetrator’s’ point of view:
In the eyes of those who administered and managed the clinic, its patients were not actually children but specimens, living examples of neurological and physiological defects, or of various pathological processes, all conditions whose progress were worth observing.
No moment is safe from over-explanation. For example, Sem-Sandberg undoes whatever pathos might have arisen from a scene in which Gross rejects a mother’s desperate plea to take her son home from the clinic by adding this description of the child’s medical file:
There is a note in the margin recording that the mother is employed by the Wehrmacht which is followed by (!), the exclamation mark intended to draw attention to the contrast between the mother’s occupation and the fact that her child is unfit to live.
This is so terrible that I actually wondered whether Sem-Sandberg were gaslighting his readers.
Even when he manages a nice turn of phrase, Sem-Sandberg can’t resist over-egging, as in this description of one of the nurses:
Mayer was an old hand, as she put it, and like many of the other ex-psychiatric nurses, she handled the children in her charge as if they were insensate, pulling the screaming bundles out of bed and carrying them under her arms like parcels, or perhaps like small animals on their way to slaughter.
If only he’d stopped at the parcels. And I don’t think we can blame the character for this description. The free indirect discourse implied by “as she put it” only applies to the phrase “an old hand.” Nothing in the rest of the passage matches her limited way of thinking and talking. Instead, the cliché about the animals on their way to the slaughter comes straight from the narrator, who is generally anonymous, but implicitly present in the regular use of obstreperous foreshadowing: on almost every page we find phrases like “years later,” “it was only much later” or “Adrian remembers.” The only exception to this narrative anonymity is a single, superlatively kitschy instance of first-person narration: “I incline my head and contemplate the deaths of these children. May the earth be light in which we let them rest.”
When the book isn’t pious or obvious, it’s confusing. Sem-Sandberg switches erratically from past to present tense, sometimes from one sentence to the next. A young nurse, more kindly than most, gives her beloved brother’s dress shoes to one of the children (the brother has died in an explosion at a quarry): “The enigmatic accident and Nico’s sudden death made something inside Hedwig Blei freeze. She stands on the verge, watching the arrogant, insecure Hitlerjugend youths march past.” At its worst, the book combines these awkward shifts with the information dumps I described above, as in this description of Katschenka’s decision to become a nurse:
She follows her father’s advice and takes a three-year course in domestic science and then gets a poorly paid job as nursery nurse at the children’s hospital in Leopoldstadt. If your background is ordinary, it is hard to land a good traineeship. It was only in May 1924 that she found an opening. Wien had been a federated state in its own right for a couple of years and the city council was under Social Democratic control.
At times like this, the book is so bad as to be puzzling. (It is never laughable, it’s far too grim for that, and, worse, it enjoys to the point of self-satisfaction its depiction of horror.) For all it flaws, there are times when The Chosen Ones is thoroughly engrossing. Sem-Sandberg is particularly good when describing the fall of Vienna to the Red Army, which happens at about the same time that Ziegler finally manages to escape the clinic. It’s as if the novel can only breathe once away from the lugubrious confines of Spiegelgrund. Ziegler falls in with a band of thieves who pursue a dangerous scheme in which they scramble onto moving freight trains to snatch at
coal that they then sell on the black market. These scenes are exciting and interesting, as are the ones detailing Katschenka’s more muddled than noble insistence on keeping the clinic running even after most of the staff have fled and the Russians have set up camp in its wards, which leads to a phantasmagoric scene in which the liberators, half disgusted and half amused by the patients, allow them to avenge themselves on their former caretakers.
The success of its descriptions of the end of the war and the failure of its depictions of the clinic suggest that some topics are more suited to historical fiction than others. Sem-Sandberg gives us a clue why that might be so in one of his epigraphs, taken from the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s investigation of the history of the penal system:
It is certainly legitimate to write a history of punishment against the background of moral ideas or legal structures. But can one write such a history against the background of a history of bodies, when such systems of punishment claim to have only the secret souls of criminals as their objective?
The Chosen Ones—the title an ironic reference to the patients selected for euthanasia—clearly fancies itself on the side of bodies. But perhaps fiction needs the framework of ideas and structures Foucault urges us to get beyond. Maybe that’s why Sem-Sandberg writes so much more easily about the liberation of Vienna than the incarceration of the children. The former can be construed on a model of causality that fiction knows what to do with, in which character and event, psychology and history work neatly together: fictional individuals can illuminate and personalize larger events, even as the sweep of history provides the context through which those individuals become intelligible.
What would the history of bodies Foucault calls for look like, especially when put into fiction? Here, at any rate, it only takes the form of voyeurism. Recall that long passage from Katschenka’s first day on the job, with its half-appalled, half-titillated catalogue of physiological damage. Sem-Sandberg might argue that these severely disabled, poignantly suffering, yet nonetheless human, figures don’t readily offer up their interiority, and to pretend to give it to them (by differentiating them, “humanizing” them) would be just another way of ignoring their singularity. Yet as shown in his decision to put Ziegler and Katschenka, however opaque to themselves they might be, at the center of the story, Sem-Sandberg shows that he can’t imagine the disabled victims of Spiegelgrund as anything than things to be observed, at best pityingly.
In the end, then, the problem with The Chosen Ones isn’t, as Sem-Sandberg suggests in his afterword, that the novelist’s task is so different from the historian’s. (Though it is true that, especially for English speaking audiences who might be unaware of Spiegelgrund and the Nazi euthanasia program, a competent history could tell us more about these terrible deeds than this novel.) Rather, it’s that their aims are all too compatible. What might exceed those aims is the thing this novel wants to achieve but cannot—the ability to do justice to the lives of those unfortunates the Nazis declared as being utterly without value.
Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.