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Review: In Juli Zeh’s ‘Empty Hearts,’ the high price of moral numbness becomes clear

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Author Juli Zeh transports readers to a near-future Germany in “Empty Hearts.”
(Peter von Felbert)

The first dystopian novels that gave me chills were in English lit class: George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

Orwell’s concepts of “doublethink” and “newspeak,” used to spread political propaganda and manipulate the masses, resonate every time I hear today’s political dog whistling. And this chilling quote from Bradbury’s masterpiece on censorship feels prophetic six decades after its publication: “If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

The lasting value of reading the masters or today’s notable dystopian novels is their compelling, sometimes parallel universes wherein we can identify and consider existential threats too frightening to talk about in real time.

Stepping into this tradition is Juli Zeh, a German author, playwright and attorney who once worked for the United Nations in New York. Her seventh novel, “Empty Hearts,” is set in a near-future Germany that has weathered not only an international refugee crisis, Donald Trump, Brexit and the resignation of Angela Merkel, but also a second worldwide financial crisis and the rise of the manipulative Concerned Citizens’ Crusade, or CCC.

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In Zeh’s telling, the CCC has contributed to Merkel’s ouster — eight years before the novel’s opening — and has steamrolled through the German parliament a series of “Efficiency Packages” that are dismantling the country’s democratic achievements in the interest of safety and economic security. Instead of taking action, the average German becomes numb in this new political climate. People turn inward to perfect their cooking techniques and elevate exercise and sport to a near-religion. Popular songs extol the virtues of suicide, and children play games in which dolls stage violent takeovers of shopping malls.

Britta, a healing practitioner, her entrepreneur husband, Richard, and their young daughter are part of this benumbed society. “They live their lives and stick their heads in the sand,” the author writes, “because they can think of nothing better to do.”

That might be a bit disingenuous because Britta rouses herself to engage in a big way: She and her Iraqi colleague, Babak, are founders of the Bridge, a Braunschweig-based suicide-prevention organization that identifies people likely to take their own lives through a complicated algorithm developed by Babak and run on a proprietary search engine. Using data mining, profiling and stylometrics, the search engine dubbed Lassie hunts through the internet, sniffing out the suicide-prone who are then subjected to a multistep process to rid them of their self-harming proclivities. But for those who persist, there are other options.

In this future world, eco-terrorism is on the wane and the Islamic State terror threat has dwindled to a “handful of decadent warlords” in the Middle East. It’s a perfect storm for the ever-pragmatic Britta, who exploits the situation by providing Islamic State, the tree-huggers, separatists and “the Frexit, Spexit, and Swexit people” with washouts. That is, members of society whose will to suicide is stronger than the Bridge’s interventions. The program’s “incorrigibles,” whom Britta rationalizes will complete suicide anyway, can die for a worthy cause while she and Babak are enriched from the fees they extract from extremist groups who pay handsomely for the unique service the duo offers.

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All is well, or as well as can be expected in such moral backwaters, which is to say that Britta has amassed enough money from her legitimate and dark web clients to afford a house, a private school for her daughter and money to lend friends who dream of buying a country home. The turning point comes when a pair of suicide bombers fail in a clumsily conceived attack on the cargo terminal at the Leipzig airport.

Britta and Babak have cornered the suicide bomber market, so they are immediately suspicious that another agency is trying to muscle in on the Bridge’s exclusive franchise, or at the least discredit their reputations.

Against Babak’s advice, Britta takes to the road to ferret out their competition by talking with clients face-to-face. Britta returns to the Bridge’s offices in Braunschweig without answers, and her suspicions are further aroused when the perfect suicide candidate, a young millennial, literally drops into their laps almost simultaneously with the appearance of a shadowy venture capitalist, who presents himself as an angel investor in her husband Richard’s latest app venture and wants to be Britta’s guardian angel too. What emerges is a threat to the Bridge, Babak, Britta and her family that is intertwined in their lives and the political morass in surprising ways.

With so much political context backgrounding the plot, “Empty Hearts” explores interesting ideas about the price of failure to act against tyranny and the moral complicity of people who capitalize on a bad situation, or do nothing in the hopes that it will all go away. On this level, “Empty Hearts” works as a cerebral thriller, even if the logic of some characters’ actions doesn’t quite hold together. At times I wished Britta would just kick someone’s butt. The novel also could have benefited from a closer look at the leaders and inner workings of the CCC and more examination of the deeper conspiracy at play.

Still, Zeh challenges readers to consider how complicit we are in our current political dilemmas. That complicity gives a deeper meaning to a lyric sung by a female pop star of the moment in the novel, used as an epigram to frame the challenge to Germany’s eroding culture, and perhaps our own: “When the future has passed, the past will return. One day you’ll be asked what you did, baby. Full hands, empty hearts, it’s a suicide world.”

“Empty Hearts”

By Juli Zeh

Translated from the German by John Cullen

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Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 270 pages; $26.95

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.

Best books: A dystopian reading list

When you finish “Empty Hearts,” Paula L. Woods suggests these titles:

Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments” (coming Sept. 9)

Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451”

Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Wind-Up Girl” and “The Water Knife”

Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange”

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Octavia Butler, “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents”

Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games”

Phillip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Kazuo Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go”

Lois Lowry, “The Giver”

George Orwell, “Animal Farm” and “1984”


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