• Review
By – May 3, 2016

Set in the autumn of 1944 and the first half of 1945, Affin­i­ty Konar’s fic­tion­al treat­ment of Dr. Josef Mengele’s mani­a­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion on young twins and oth­er vic­tims incar­cer­at­ed at Auschwitz is aston­ish­ing. Mis­chling (mean­ing hybrid” or mixed-blood”) is a nov­el based on care­ful­ly mas­tered research processed by the author’s art­ful and spir­i­tu­al­ly charged imag­i­na­tion. It is the most risk-prone type of com­ing-of-age tale that one is like­ly to encounter, held as it is in a night­mar­ish, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic frame.

The first half of the nov­el is set pri­mar­i­ly with­in Auschwitz, in the dor­mi­to­ries, labs, and oper­at­ing sta­tions known as the Zoo. We meet the Zamorsky sis­ters, Pearl and Stasha, who have been tem­porar­i­ly saved from the usu­al work camp-to-exe­cu­tion pas­sage due to Mengele’s mad inter­est in explor­ing the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal nature of twin­ship. He con­sid­ers him­self a rig­or­ous sci­en­tist above all else, but it is clear that his per­vert­ed genius is dri­ven by some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from a pas­sion for sci­en­tif­ic method. As the exper­i­ments go on, one twin los­es much of her sight and hear­ing while the oth­er los­es the use of her legs. Men­gele, who asks his charges to call him Uncle Doc­tor, works by tak­ing the sis­ters away from each oth­er, watch­ing the con­se­quences of their bond­ed natures being severed.

The ten­sion between the twins’ iden­ti­ties as a twofold unit and as sep­a­rate, dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties is enhanced by the sto­ry­telling method. Konar alter­nates chap­ters nar­rat­ed by Stasha and those nar­rat­ed by Pearl. Their voic­es have an eerie blend of sim­i­lar­i­ties and con­trasts: each is con­stant­ly curi­ous, and lives in search of the miss­ing oth­er — the miss­ing part of the whole.

The nar­row world of the Zoo sec­tion at Auschwitz is rich­ly pop­u­lat­ed with oth­er char­ac­ters, all crip­pled in one way or anoth­er by Men­gele. Some are prop­er­ly feared by the twins, oth­ers form a kind of sup­port sys­tem. Coop­er­a­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for small vic­to­ries and keep the hope of sur­vival alive. The fall of Auschwitz to Russ­ian forces leads to the for­ma­tion of dis­persed clus­ters of escapees who encounter a pre­car­i­ous and chal­leng­ing free­dom. Mov­ing from place to place in war-torn Poland, Stasha and Pearl each become part of small, dis­tinct fam­i­lies born of cir­cum­stances first shaped in the Zoo. Their abil­i­ty to build rela­tion­ships and main­tain hope in the midst of per­son­al dev­as­ta­tion and the dev­as­ta­tion of Jew­ish peo­ple­hood is relat­ed with the great­est insight and com­pas­sion by their creator.

Although the dam­age the twins suf­fer makes Mis­chling dif­fi­cult to read, the seduc­tion of Konar’s lit­er­ary skill sur­pass­es the harsh details of Dr. Mengele’s Auschwitz exper­i­ments. Every word counts, and every phrase orches­trates images and emo­tions in a way that seems to awak­en lan­guage itself. While the ugli­ness of the sto­ry might push read­ers out, the spell cast by the author’s ver­bal wiz­ardry pulls them back in. Dar­ing in con­cept and method, Konar has honed in on the per­fect blend­ing of inspi­ra­tion, vision, and tech­nique to pen a unique masterpiece.

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Affin­i­ty Konar

Beyond the Birch­es of Oswiecim

The Sto­ries That Nev­er Leave You

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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