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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review of MISCHLING by Affinity Konar


3 Stars 
This Holocaust novel focuses on Jewish twin girls, Stasha and Pearl Zamorski, who arrive in Auschwitz and become inhabitants of Josef Mengele’s zoo, a special section of the concentration camp where he performed brutal experiments on those with genetic anomalies.  The novel has two parts:  the first deals with the time the girls spend in Auschwitz and the second focuses on what happens to them following the liberation of the camp.  Of course, the focus throughout is on survival.  With some exceptions, chapters are narrated alternately by the two.

Stasha and Pearl are 12 years old when they are sent to Auschwitz.  They are defined by their oneness; they have a special psychic connection such that they know each other’s thoughts and “pain never belonged to just one of us.”  They are fiercely devoted to each other and more than anything fear being separated.  Stasha screams when different numbers are tattooed on their arms because “they pointed out that we were separate people, and when you are separate people, you can be parted.”  Later she finds that one of the worst things about the experiments performed on her is that Mengele “imposed divisions on the matter I shared with Pearl.”

The book does not dwell too much on the specifics of the experiments.  Most of the details of the experimentation are kept in the sidelines.  What is described is horrific enough.  The girls notice the others who have been at the camp for a while:  “In nearly every pair, one twin had a spine gone awry, a bad leg, a patched eye, a wound, a scar, a crutch.”  Not much more needs to be said.  Those few who do survive Auschwitz become “an experiment for the war-torn countries, the disassembled, the displaced.”

It is not the physical torture but the emotional and mental suffering that most struck me.  Pearl and Stasha suffer when they are separated from their family and each other; their physical pain is given much less emphasis.  A Jewish doctor, Dr. Miri, suffers unimaginable emotional trauma.  She is forced to be Mengele’s assistant, compelled “to do things she did not want to do.”  Stasha speaks of Miri’s sorrow arising from “taking care of the children that Uncle [Mengele] claimed for his own.  It must have been like stringing a harp for someone who played his harp with a knife, or binding a book for someone whose idea of reading was feeding pages to a fire.”  In the end, Miri is “folded in a corner . . . She was awake, but absent.”

I feel guilty for having to admit that I found the book tedious.  Reading about their efforts to survive in such horrific circumstances was painful and I certainly hoped for their survival, but otherwise I felt emotionally distanced.  Perhaps the lyrical prose caused some of this disconnect.  The beautiful figurative language just does not seem appropriate to the subject matter and does not suit the age of the narrators.  The number of metaphors is sometimes overwhelming; at the beginning, Stasha describes their lives in utero:  “For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother.  I couldn’t imagine anything grander than the womb we shared, but after the scaffolds of our brains were ivoried and our spleens were complete, Pearl wanted to see the world beyond us.”  The girls’ thoughts and dialogue suggest they should be much older; for example, Pearl says she will never look away from the horrors “because in looking away . . . we would lose ourselves so thoroughly that our loss would require another name.”

There are coincidences that jar.  Pearl ends up in the same bed near the wall of which Stasha had scratched the words “Dear Pearl”.  The second part of the novel feels disjointed and the ending is just too simplistic.  The resolution is dependent on more coincidence, and the use of a zoo at the beginning and end is just too neat a structure.

There are certainly messages for the reader, one of the most important being that we not forget; one character makes a comment that really struck me:  “’The whole world will never look back.  And if they do, they’ll probably say that it never really happened.’”  The dehumanizing effects of the holocaust are emphasized; Stasha speaks of the Zoo’s most severe alteration being “the very damage it did to our notions of what it meant to be close to another living being” and she tries to tell her sister that “we had to treat ourselves as objects in order to get by.”  Knowing the degree of evil that exists in the world, an evil “in all its lowdown fullness, its beastly disrespect for all living creatures and their great variety,” is it possible to “learn to love the world once more”? 

I’m not sure whether to recommend this book to others.  Its subject matter is difficult and what happens to the characters is heart wrenching.  Those who enjoy lyrical writing will find much to like, but those looking for an action-filled plot will not.