“When he wakes up he is dead.” A horror novel, of a sort, in which Swedish novelist Sem-Sandberg (The Emperor of Lies, 2011) returns to the Holocaust to limn its essential inhumanity.
Under orders from the newly imposed Nazi regime, doctors at an Austrian clinic are euthanizing the sick children under their care, using lethal injections to dispose of the innocent victims, but not without a few experiments in “encephelography” and “hereditary biology” along the way. Leading the charge is a sadistic doctor, Jekelius, whose only redeeming feature is that his successor is worse. With the doctor’s name, it may be that Sem-Sandberg means for us to think of Dr. Jekyll, but there is not much in the way of a countervailing good force to balance the monsters that stroll the halls of Am Spiegelgrund unhidden. At the center of the story is a young patient, Adrian Ziegler, who watches as, one by one, children disappear from their beds and whose faces he cannot recall: “When Ziegler is shown photographs of the boys, he recognizes most of them but can’t for the life of him work out where or when he has met them.” Occupying much of the story, though, is a figure for whom our empathy builds, only to be shattered, a nurse named Anna Katschenka, who is “efficient, unswervingly loyal and invariably sensible.” She bustles about the ward doing her job, the proverbial good Nazi who was only following orders. Anna at least has a sense of the moral disorder that surrounds her work, and though, years later, on trial for war crimes, she pleads that she is a “decent human being,” we understand that that is true only in a relative sense. There is much evil in the book, and much of it is banal indeed. Making every word count, Sem-Sandberg explores the psychologies of captive and captor, the complexities of bearing witness to things that most people would sooner forget.
A memorable meditation on the human capacity to do ill—and to endure.