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Mischling reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction, writes Margaret von Klemperer

This review was published in the Witness

AFFINITY Konar’s debut novel is an extraordinary piece of writing, powerfully imaginative, cleverly constructed and lyrical…but it is not an easy read. In places, it is close to unbearable.

The novel opens in 1944 with Polish identical twins Pearl and Stasha travelling to Auschwitz in a cattle truck with their mother and grandfather. On the verge of adolescence, they are immediately taken from their family and handed over to Dr Josef Mengele, whose name will resonate through time as one of the most evil people who has ever lived, and who is, of course, a man who never faced justice.

As part of Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the twins may have certain privileges not granted to other inmates of the death camp, but they will also be subjected to unspeakable horrors and experiments.

Konar, who has used many testimonies of Auschwitz survivors as source material, tells the story in alternating voices. Pearl is the gentler twin, the child who loves to dance, while Stasha is physically stronger and more imaginative.

The author controls the two streams of narrative skilfully as we read of the damage done to the children and the growing carapace of hatred that they, and particularly Stasha, grow in order to survive.
 

Then, with the end of the war coming closer, Pearl vanishes from a concert organised by Mengele. All Stasha has to cling to is the possibility that she is still alive somewhere, and when the camp is liberated, Stasha and Feliks, another surviving twin, escape from the Death March and set off on an odyssey of their own to the ruins of Warsaw with two aims in mind: to revenge themselves on Mengele and to find Pearl.

Nothing is spared of the sheer horror of the feral existence of the refugees in war-ravaged Europe, making the second half of the novel no easier to stomach than the earlier part set in Auschwitz.

This book reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction. It is a debate that leaves me slightly conflicted: while Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful came in for a lot of criticism for using humour to tell its story, it worked for me, but I disliked John Boyne’s manipulative, heavy-handed and implausible 2006 teen novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Certainly Affinity Konar trivialises nothing, nor does her manner of telling the story manipulate our feelings.

Whether a novel is a good way of describing the horrors of Auschwitz is something people have to decide for themselves, but this book may persuade you that fiction is a legitimate and a powerful tool to remind the world of the existence of evil. – Margaret von Klemperer

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