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De utvalda Steve Sem-Sandberg, De utvalda (The Chosen Ones)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2014.

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2015:1

Review Section: Fiction

World War II is an inexhaustible source of paradoxes of human behaviour and Steve Sem-Sandberg is a masterly analyst who has chosen to present his observations in fiction rather than in historical works. His previous novel, De fattiga i Łódź (The Emperor of Lies) recreates the world recorded in archive material from the Łódź ghetto and focuses on its Jewish Elder, the walking, talking paradox that was Chaim Rumkowski.

The historical content of De utvalda is drawn from documentation on Steinhof, a mental hospital complex in Vienna, which included a group of pavilions known as Spiegelgrund. In the 1940s these were designated to be part reform school for socially deprived children, part paediatric clinic. Well-meaning? Not really: the reform school was brutal, and its inmates were picked regardless of whether they had any record of wrongdoing. As for the clinic, it specialised in killing off severely ill or malformed patients. It was one of many similar institutions in Nazi-dominated central Europe, all managed from the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin through its bodies for medical and social ‘outreach’. This was not just a matter of sending in the SS: the programmes involved recruiting qualified teachers, health and social workers at every level. Sem-Sandberg answers the question ‘How could they?’ by creating a gallery of believable characters based on members of staff, notably the unhinged psychiatrist Dr Jekelius (related to Dr Jekyll?), obedient-unto-the-end Sister Katschenka, and the psychopathic career medic Dr Gross. Other memorable professionals and ‘ordinary people’ also help us understand the pressures and delusions that make human beings end up morally at sea with the compass needle swinging madly.

And then there are the children, marvellously well described. Some of the young patients are recreated from their medical notes. The reform school kids are partly based on interviews with survivors and various other records, but the writer’s imagination has recreated them with precision and sensitivity. Year after soul-destroying year, it was hammered into these youngsters not just that they were socially and psychologically inferior, but that this state of affairs was innate – for ‘racial’ or other reasons, they were biological waste material.

The final chapters anchor the narrative in contemporary reality. We follow Adrian Ziegler, one of the semi-fictional survivors of the ‘schooling’ and the euthanasia programme, into a contented old age – despite what he had endured. There are also extracts from the documents generated as members of the Spiegelgrund staff were finally exposed and tried (though some, including the appalling Dr Gross, got away with it), and from the speech given when the formaldehyde-pickled pathological specimens taken from Spiegelgrund victims were given a decent burial.

De utvalda is an exceptionally powerful fusion of great fiction and the moral challenges posed by historical record.

Also by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Other reviews by Anna Paterson

Other reviews in SBR 2015:1

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