Al­most ev­ery­thing ex­cept au­then­tic­ity

Mis­chling

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Affin­ity Konar

At­lantic Books, £12.99 Re­viewed by Toby Lichtig

IT IS not hard, when con­fronting a sub­ject such as Josef Men­gele’s med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments on child twins in Auschwitz, to stir the emo­tions of the reader. You don’t need to be a gifted writer to arouse pity, re­vul­sion, ab­hor­rence at de­scrip­tions of the de­fence­less and un­com­pre­hend­ing be­ing scalded and in­fected, di­vested of their limbs; of the new­born baby seized from its mother and starved to death in a lab­o­ra­tory; of the Ro­ma­nian boys whose ar­ter­ies were sewn to­gether in a bid to “cre­ate” con­joined twins. (Men­gele was, among other things, med­i­cally in­com­pe­tent and sci­en­tif­i­cally hare-brained.)

The skill, when ad­dress- ing such ma­te­rial in fic­tion, lies in win­ning the at­ten­tion of the reader in other ways, in cre­at­ing cred­i­ble char­ac­ters, a fully re­alised world, or in do­ing in­ter­est­ing things with lan­guage and form: the stuff, in other words, of all good nov­els — ex­cept, given both the sub­ject and its lit­er­ary history, the stakes are rather higher, the po­ten­tial for mawk­ish­ness, or cheap­ness, very great.

The prob­lem with Affin­ity Konar’s Mis­chling is not that it’s not a par­tic­u­larly good novel, at times sen­ti­men­tal, glib and lack­ing in in­ter­nal in­tegrity: it’s that it’s a not par­tic­u­larly good novel about one of the dark­est cor­ners of the Holo­caust .

At its cen­tre are two twins, Stasha and Pearl, who ar­rive in Auschwitz as 12-year-olds in the au­tumn of 1944.

Im­me­di­ately sep­a­rated from their mother and grand­fa­ther, they are sta­tioned in Men­gele’s “Zoo”, where they are in­tro­duced to the Doc­tor’s gallery of dam­aged dou­bles: “In nearly ev­ery pair, one twin had a spine gone awry, a bad leg, a patched eye, a wound, a scar, a crutch.” They en­ter the camp think­ing and speak­ing al­most as one en­tity (“One of us snarled. It might have been Pearl. It was prob­a­bly me”). This sin­gu­lar­ity will soon be ripped apart.

There is a fab­u­lar qual­ity to both the nar­ra­tive and prose, dreamy lan­guage used to de­scribe a night­mare. It is an in­ter­est­ing ap­proach but the re­sult is too of­ten hol­low and eva­sive, as op­posed to any­thing ap­pro­pri­ately dis­turb­ing.

To di­vide re­spon­si­bil­ity, the twins de­cide to “share out” emo­tion and time: “Stasha would take the funny, the fu­ture, the bad. [Pearl] would take the sad, the past the good.” Men­gele, too, di­vides re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: Pearl is in­fected with a pox; Stasha is made par­tially deaf when boil­ing wa­ter is poured into her ear. It leaves her with a per­ma­nent echo. “This was good when some­one said some­thing pleas­ant. It was ter­ri­ble when some­one barked a nasty or­der.”

The cutesi­ness of the above sen­tence, its strain­ing for ef­fect, should give some in­di­ca­tion of what we’re deal­ing with. Else­where, “heart­beats” are eu­phemisti­cally “ex­tracted” from bod­ies, while work­ing for Men­gele is like “string­ing a harp for some­one who played his harp with a knife.”

Quite a lot hap­pens: the chil­dren de­vise games (these sec­tions are largely vivid and well-re­searched) and en­dure ap­palling hor­rors; they de­velop crushes and en­mi­ties, plot their es­capes; then Pearl dis­ap­pears. Later, the camp is lib­er­ated and Stasha’s search for her lost dou­ble be­gins. There are var­i­ous res­o­lu­tions, daubed with schmaltz.

Clever leit­mo­tifs are ca­pa­bly wo­ven in: ideas about in­di­vid­u­al­ity and clas­si­fi­ca­tion, imag­i­na­tion and tran­scen­dence. Konar can write well and will write well again. But Mis­chling too eas­ily be­trays the work­ings of its re­search and its the­matic pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Worst of all, for a book about the Holo­caust, it just doesn’t ring true

Toby Lichtig is the fic­tion edi­tor of the TLS Saatchis’ fa­mous Tory story

Affin­ity Konar: sen­ti­men­tal

PHOTO: ALAMY

PHOTO: GABRIELA MICHANIE

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