By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Affinity Konar’s Mischling offers an unremittingly bleak insight into one of the most unremittingly bleak periods of human history. At the novel’s beginning, twins Pearl and Stasha alternate licks of a raw onion, their only source of sustenance on the long train journey to Auschwitz. Upon their arrival, it seems to their mother that the twins are being lined up for special treatment at the camp, and she pushes them forward. More devastating parental decisions have probably been made, both in history and in literature, but it’s hard to think of any while reading Mischling.
The barracks of the Zoo were once stables for horses, but now they were heaped with the likes of us: twins, triplets, quints. Hundreds upon hundreds of us, all packed into beds that weren’t beds but matchboxes, little slots to slip bodies into; we were piled from floor to ceiling, forced into these minute structures three or four bodies at a time so that a girl hardly knew where her body ended and another’s began.
While in “the Zoo,” Pearl and Stasha are subjected to experiments by Josef Mengele, a man disturbingly referred to as “Uncle;” the fact that almost all the plot details pertaining to Mengele’s experiments are based on fact, and that Mengele was a real person, make these parts of the book all the more horrifying. Mischling was the first book I finished in 2017 and I’m skeptical as to whether I will read another book that matches its disturbing power all year. In a work with no basis in reality, a character such as Mengele, sewing twins together just to see what happens and crippling his wards just for the hell of it, would seem outlandishly evil and it is in this way that Konar’s research makes her novel profoundly harrowing.
While Part One of Mischling dwells entirely in Auschwitz, the second half sees the Red Army liberate the camp, not that this brings any glimmer of light to the narrative; with Pearl having disappeared beforehand, Stasha is left unmoored, lost without her twin. In this second part, Konar shows a different but equally heartrending scenario, with innumerable displaced and tormented people desperately trying to return to homes which are no longer waiting for them.
There’s a disconcerting contrast at the heart of Mischling, between the horror of what is depicted and the stark beauty and, frequently, the delicacy of Konar’s prose. For example, when describing a Jewish doctor forced to care for the children subjected to Mengele’s hideous pursuits, Stasha reflects that “it must have been like stringing a harp for someone who played his harp with his knife, or binding a book for someone whose idea of reading was feeding pages to a fire.” The more brutal the events described, the more florid the prose, and yet there is no masking of the horrors afoot at Auschwitz. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s hard to read the novel for too long at any one time without feeling entirely emotionally annihilated, with Konar offering little respite from the bleakness of the story, which is appropriate, as there was no break in the suffering of the camp’s prisoners. Violence and torment pervade every page of Mischling, with death even personified to demonstrate its inescapable presence, when Pearl explains that, “the scent of death is not frantic. When you have been around it enough, it is oddly respectful; it keeps its distance, it tries to negotiate with your nostrils and appreciates the fact that at some point, one becomes so accustomed to it that it is hardly noticeable at all.” Pearl and Stasha, in their dovetailing narratives, are able to offer little int the way of hope or optimism.
Auschwitz never forgot me. I begged it to. But even as I wept and bargained and withered it took care to know my number, and to count every soul that it claimed. We were so innumerable, we should have overwhelmed this land beneath us into nothingness. But this patch of earth would not be overwhelmed. Some claimed that we might overwhelm it when we fully understood its evil. But whenever we began to understand it, evil itself increased.
Here in the UK, Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II are probably the most frequently and widely studied historical subjects. In Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, an argument breaks out in a lesson as the students and their teachers debate whether the Holocaust should even be taught as a subject; as the sole Jewish student argues, it’s too real, too immediate and too personal to ever be approached with the objectivity required of a historian. In many ways, the same could be said to apply to literature using the period as a subject, and I can see why some people might choose not to read Mischling, or perhaps even disapprove of its writing; is the use of material so close to real-life opportunistic grave-robbing or necessary exploration of a shameful period of history that must never be repeated? I’m not sure I have an answer to this question, but I will say that, while I was upset and disturbed by Affinity Konar’s novel, it served as a reminder of an event which it is sometimes easy to think of merely as a chapter in history, when, in fact, I think we need to view what’s depicted here as a necessary reminder of the evil that can be enacted when power is in the wrong hands.
It would be misleading to suggest that you will enjoy Mischling, because its relentless misery is almost suffocating, but to present the material otherwise would be to entirely misrepresent it. There is hope to be found here if you look hard enough, and Konar’s prose is poetic enough to come close to transcending its harrowing subject matter, without ever undermining the plight of Pearl, Stasha and all those they represent.