Pain never belonged to just one of us
As the title of your novel suggests, Mischling (2016) is an hybrid: revenge and forgiveness; horror and wonder; hope and despair — these opposites mingle here, escaping their entrapment in any fixed classification, and become one and the same formless thing.
The novel’s background is Josef Mengele’s “Zoo” — Barrack 14 of Camp F., the section of Auschwitz where the “Angel of Death” performed grotesque experiments on children, especially twins. Children who presented some characteristic which was considered a genetic oddity by the Nazi doctor were sent to the “Zoo”, and spared immediate extermination. Once there, they were guinea pigs for testing eugenic theories, and were submitted to a wide array of sadistic experiments: human vivisection; infection with diseases; injection of chemicals into their eyes, in an effort to change their color; caging; amputations without anesthesia, and other kinds of gruesome mutilation.
The two protagonists are driven by force to this torture chamber: Pearl and Stasha Zamorski are identical twins, 12-year-old Jews deported from their home in Lodz, in late 1944. Partly inspired in the story of Eva and Miriam Mozes, the novel is narrated in alternating chapters by each girl. While the first half describes the horrors of the “Zoo” and its effects on the twins, the second half takes place after the liberation of Auschwitz, and focuses on the twins’ efforts of overcoming what had been made to and of them.
Because Stasha and Pearl had blond hair and brown eyes, they did not look stereotypically Jewish. But since both their parents were Jewish, the girls were not Mischlinge either. They defied the Nazi taxonomy, according to which Mischling denoted a mixed-race, a person of mixed Jewish and “Aryan” heritage. Mirroring the protagonists, your writing strategy also defies the Nazi taxonomy of rendering some as less than human, as Untermenschen. In giving voice to the twins, and telling the story under their perspective and interior lives, you humanize the one who had been de-humanized. “These Nazis had such stupidly vicious ideas of what constituted a person — I knew well enough to never underestimate their whims.”
The idea of hybrid pervades all aspects of the novel, from the plot to the writing style. Plotwise, both the setting itself (a place where doctors are at the same time saviors and executioners), as well as the girls’ story incorporate the idea of being a mixture. Stasha and Pearl become gradually more hybrid, mixed with each other, as they are submitted to Mengele’s grotesque experiments. Once inseparable and identical, able to feel and think in unison, the girls find themselves drifting apart from each other, as Mengele’s ministrations take place. Each bizarre experiment imposes further differences between the twins, and their bond is slowly broken down to pieces. From the beginning, they are made distinct by the numbers which were tattooed on them, highlighting the fact that they were not one — “and when you are separate people, you might be parted.”
Further on, the classifications themselves to which the girls are submitted are imposed divisions, forced separations. If the twins are not Mischlinge in the true sense of the word (both of their parents were Jews), they are progressively made hybrid by the experiments. “As he placed the needle back on its tray, I realized that he’d complicated me; he’d imposed divisions on the matter I shared with Pearl, all that we’d both collaborated on in our floating little world. The needle made me a mischling, but the word took on a meaning different than the term the Nazis imposed upon us, all those cold and gruesome equations of blood and worship and heritage. No, I was a hybrid of a different sort, a powerful hyrbid forged by my suffering. I was now composed of two parts. One part was loss and despair. Such darkness should make life impossible, I know. But my other part? It was wild hope. And no one could extract or cut or drain it from me. No one could burn it from my flesh or puncture it with a needle. This hopeful part, it twisted me, gave me a new form. The girl who’d licked an onion in the cattle car was dead, and the mischling I’d become was an oddity, a thwarted person, a creature — but a creature capable of tricking her enemies and rescuing her loved ones.”
Finally, as if mirroring the girls’ separation, Stasha loses body parts which come in two (her hearing and sight are violently impaired). Meanwhile, Pearl is injected with all kinds of toxic substances, then is later encaged and has her feet smashed. The twins adopt opposed mechanisms for coping with the situation: Stasha becomes intent on hunting down Mengele and exacting revenge, while at the same time trying to keep intact her humanity and being assailed by a strong sense of survivor’s guilt; Pearl, on the other hand, tries to erase herself and and to become “less than human” in order to survive — considering it a mistake to become “human” in the face of horror -, while at the same time embracing forgiveness. Forgiveness “was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgment of the fact that I still lived; it was proof that their experiments, their numbers, their samples, was all for naught — I remained, a tribute to their underestimations of what a girl can endure. In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.” Survivor’s guilt, forgiveness and vengeance are intertwined, and made hybrid, Mischling. While the use of imagination is a source of hope for the girls, it is also a source of fear and despair; as the story progresses, it becomes hard to sort reality from nightmare.
Meanwhile, Mengele seems to rejoice not only in studying the sisters’ separation, but also in alienating each girl from her own sense of self. And here, as their stories begin to diverge, their voices — as if it were a mechanism of defense, of self-preservation, of searching for their sister’s missing self — begin to intertwine, to grow similar, and their personalities begin to mingle. Each sister starts to share features which once belonged to the other one. Pearl, who had been the more outgoing of the twins, becomes more quiet, withdrawn; Stasha, the more introvert, becomes sociable, captivating and bolder. Even their narrative voices change: Pearl, once more methodical, becomes metaphorical, imaginative; Stasha, once lyrical, becomes more objective and direct. They change place as witnesses of the horror they’ve gone through; and they become an hybrid of each other, a Mischling.
The idea of hybrid also pervades the novel in its writing style. The book reads like a dark fairy tale, as you blend reality and imagination, rendering, through lyrical language, the cruelty of the facts, and revealing the violent events only in sudden glimpses which are then soon enwrapped in the girls’s imagination — much similar to nightmares. However, this aspect of your novel was for me its weakness. While I think the writing style used here could have been ideal for depicting trauma — metaphor and poetry used as a means to signify what cannot be expressed through denotation; imagination deployed as a survival tool -, I felt it was overly done — to the point of failing precisely at the point it was trying to achieve. Instead of conveying trauma, the writing evades it, covers it with fog. While I can see that you wanted to use metaphor and lyricism as a means not to “to obscure torment”, but to “show how someone would obscure torment in order to survive it” (source), I cannot help but feel that the excessively self-conscious writing style has in the end obscured both the horror as well as the girls’ process of coping with the horror.
There seems to be, in this vein, a problem of consistency. The novel’s style is torn apart by two opposing forces: while the use of a child’s point of view has the effect of intensifying the horror, the lyrical writing style deflates this effect by sublimating what is being described. Maybe this is just one more instance of the hybridism in this novel, but it is sometimes hard not to be tired of precocious narrators who attempt profound reflexions while being beaten, tortured, kept in a cage, and starved to death.
The sisters’ voices sway between innocence and maturity: sometimes, the narrators seem to tell the story at the precise moment when they are living it; other times, they seem to narrate the events from the perspective of years in the future. There is a teatralicality to the language and the setting of the scenes, as if the story were being staged for the reader, with its edges cut down in order to emphasize the scene’s dramatic effect.
Scholarly, much has been discussed about the morality of “fictionalizing the Holocaust”, or “making art” out of it, as well as about the ethical limitations of holocaust literary representation. The arguments range from the dangers of denying the real victims their voice; the risk of lack of authenticity in fiction; the risk of sensationalism and voyeurism; to the dangers, through stylization, of stripping the events of its horror (Adorno, T. W. “Engagement”, Noten zur Literatur III. Suhrkamp Verlag, 1965, p. 109–135) ¹. Elizabeth Hardwick has pointed out to the dificulty of making a work of art “in some measure aesthetically commensurate with the Nazi history it springs from” (source). Cynthia Ozick, herself acknowledged by her works of Holocaust fiction, has once declared that, albeit supporting that one should “write what one doesn’t know”, she was opposed to fictionalizing the Holocaust: “I’m against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. (…) I’m definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction” (source) ².
Taking a tangent to this discussion, I prefer to think that fiction and testimony can take us to complementary places. If to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric (Adorno), the refusal to write it is also deeply barbaric. I acknowledge your intent in this novel, even if I don’t think it was thoroughly accomplished: to put into words the defiance of trying, as Elie Wiesel once said, to “remain humane in an inhumane universe” (source); moreover, to use aesthetics as a form of unexpectedly gentle revenge; and, intertwined with that, as a form of violent, radical forgiveness.
- “(…) to squeeze aesthetic pleasure out of artistic representation of the naked bodily pain of those who have been knocked down by rifle butts (…) Through aesthetic principles or stylization (…) the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose. It is transfigured and stripped of some of its horror, and with this, injustice is already done to the victims.” (Adorno, T. W. “Engagement”, Noten zur Literatur III. Suhrkamp Verlag, 1965, p. 109–135.
- “I don’t agree with the sentiment “write what you know.” That recommends circumscription. I think one should write what one doesn’t know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination. That’s what it’s there for. All the same, I’m against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. Here we are, fifty years after the Holocaust, and the number of documents and survivor reminiscences — organized by very sensitive programs such as The Fortunoff oral history efforts at Yale and Steven Spielberg’s oral-history program — keep coming in torrents. Each year throws up more and more studies. It seems to me that if each one of us, each human being alive on the planet right now, were to spend the next five thousand years absorbing and assimilating the documents, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’m definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can’t help it. If I had been there and not here I would be dead, which is something I can never forget. I think back on the four years I was in high school — I was extraordinarily happy, just coming into the exaltations of literature — and then I think about what was going on across the water, with very confused feelings. When “The Shawl” was first published in The New Yorker (May 26, 1980), I received two letters, both quite penetrating in shocking ways. The first was from a psychiatrist who said he dealt with many Holocaust survivors. He said he was certain that I was such a survivor because only a survivor could write such a story. I was shocked by the utter confidence of his assumption; he knew nothing about imagination. The second was a very angry letter from a Holocaust survivor. She found my use of imagination utterly out of place and considered it both emotionally and morally disruptive. I sided with the survivor and thought the psychiatrist foolish. I finally assauged the survivor by convincing her that I was not an enemy of her unreplicatable experience. As for the Jewish tradition of memory informing my outlook — absolutely, yes. History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makeswriting. Writing without history has been epidemic for some time now. It’s a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is “the past”? One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgment and interpretation.” Ozick, Cynthia. Interview. The Atlantic, May 15, 1997. Available online here: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/factfict/ozick.htm
“That was one of the biggest stings of this sisterhood — pain never belonged to just one of us.”
– Affinity Konar, Mischling
“Everyone survived by planning. I could see that. I realized that Stasha and I would have to divide the responsibilities of living between us. Such divisions had always come naturally to us, and so there, in the early-morning dark, we divvied up the necessities: Stasha would take the funny, the future, the bad. I would take the sad, the past, the good.”
― Affinity Konar, Mischling
“But in Auschwitz, I found that the room that really changes you is the one that can make you feel nothing at all. It is the room that says, Come sit in me, and you will know no pain; your suffering isn’t real, and your struggles? They’re only slightly more real than you are, but not by much. Save yourself, the room advises, by feeling nothing, and if you must feel something, don’t doom yourself by showing it.”
― Affinity Konar, Mischling
“Though just a girl, I had ideas about violence. Violence had a horizon, a scent, a color. I’d seen it in books and newsreels, but I didn’t truly know it until I saw the effects of it on Zayde, saw him come to our basement home in the ghetto with a red rag over his face, saw Mama go soundless as she bound his nose with the scrap torn from the hem of her nightgown. Pearl held the lamp during this procedure so that Mama could see, but I was shuddering so much that I couldn’t assist her. I should be able to say that I saw violence happen to Mama when a guard came to our door with news about the disappearance, but I kept my eyes closed tight the whole time, sealed them shut while Pearl stared straight ahead, and because my sister saw it all, I felt the images secondhand, felt them burn on the backs of my eyelids — I saw the guard’s boot glow and furrow itself in Mama’s side as she lay on the floor. Pearl was angry that I was not an active witness, and so she forced me to take it all in, and when I begged her to stop subjecting me to such sights, she informed me that I had no say in the matter, because she would never look away, not ever, no matter how much it hurt me, because in looking away, she said, we would lose ourselves so thoroughly that our loss would require another name.”
― Affinity Konar, Mischling
About the book
- Lee Boudreaux Books, Little, Brown and Company, 2016, 344 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me by Little, Brown and Company for review.
Originally published at theblankgarden.wordpress.com on October 9, 2016.