Mischling by Affinity Konar – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

Mmischlingsischling by Affinity Konar was apparently the talk of the Frankfurt book fair this year. The novel is historical fiction and the title derives from a term used by the Nazis to describe persons of mixed race, notably those with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. This book is one more about the holocaust but from a unique point of view. Although a novel, it draws heavily on the 1991 nonfiction Children of the Flames by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, an account of life in the concentration camp Auschwitz in World War II, where Nazi doctor Josef Mengele subjected some 3,000 twins to medical experiments. Only 160 survived.

Mengele did many horrifying medical experiments at Auschwitz, using twins. These twins were as young as five and six years of age, were usually murdered after the experiment was over and their bodies dissected. “Uncle Mengele” injected chemicals into the eyes of children in an attempt to change their eye color. He performed experimental surgeries without anesthesia; he sewed twins back to back trying to make Siamese twins; He conducted experiments in isolation endurance, reaction to various stimuli, made injections with lethal germs, performed sex change operations and the removal of organs and limbs.

Mischling is told through the eyes of a pair of identical twins, Pearl and Stasha, who have been transported to Auschwitz in 1944 along with their mother and grandfather. When they arrive, the twins are separated from their relatives and relegated to Mengeles’ zoo, the special barracks where he kept children with various physical abnormalities, and twins, which he especially favoured. The story is told in chapters narrated alternately by each of the twins. It recounts their experience, the friends they made and their heroic efforts to survive. Oddly enough, it is lyrically told, poetical with a slight whiff of mysticism. On a factual level, some of the sufferings reflect the real life travails of Eva Mozes Kor and her identical twin,  Miriam Mozes who survived Mengele’s ministrations in the camp.

In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Ms. Konar reveals that the entry point into this novel was voice and language.  “I didn’t want to obscure torment,” Konar states, “but I wanted to show how someone would obscure torment in order to survive it.”

Although intense, the book does not dwell extensively on the experiments themselves, but on the feelings of the twins. It is an “interior” novel although it reflects the ghastly external conditions in the camp and in the countryside at the end of the war after the Russians have invaded and freed the prisoners to wander the land in search of a usually non existent home and family.

The novel is intense, but not to everyone’s taste. It is difficult to match the poetical delivery with the facts they recount and of which we know from the many tales of Auschwitz which have come out over the years, but it is an interesting take on the struggle for survival and its being told in the first person heightens the reader’s experience. It is a strong work, harrowing, tough yet lyrical.

Mischling is published by Random House Canada

Footnote: Assisted by a network of former SS members, Mengele sailed to Argentina in July 1949. He initially lived in and around Buenos Aires, then fled to Paraguay in 1959 and Brazil in 1960 while being sought by West Germany, Israel, and Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal so that he could be brought to trial. In spite of extradition requests by the West German government and clandestine operations by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, Mengele eluded capture. He drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming off the Brazilian coast in 1979 and was buried under a false name. His remains were disinterred and positively identified by forensic examination in 1985.