Affinity Konar was still a bit starstruck, there in a lounge at Manhattan’s Warwick Hotel. She’d just met Lucette Lagnado, one of the authors of “Children of the Flames,” a book about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and the twins who survived his Auschwitz laboratory. Konar said the book was one she had been “obsessed with since I was 16.”
It takes a particular kind of 16-year-old to voluntarily read “Children of the Flames,” let alone form a vigorous attachment to it. It also takes a certain kind of writer to, at 25, begin a novel on the same subject, then labor over it for a decade.
Konar’s novel “Mischling” is a deceptively lovely book to look at, with two luminous red poppies climbing its cream-colored cover. That loveliness carries over into the novel’s first paragraphs, which, narrated by Stasha, one of the book’s central twins, briefly describe the wondrousness of the world she and her sister experienced prior to their imprisonment in the Holocaust.
“For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother,” Stasha observes. Upon exiting that womb — it was her twin sister Pearl’s idea, Stasha emphasizes, not her own — “we entered the world of family and piano and book, of days that baffled by in beauty.”
That introduction leads quickly into a world of horrors made eerily mundane, as Stasha and Pearl arrive at Auschwitz. Parted from their mother and grandfather, they’re installed in Mengele’s Zoo, where they’re subjected to Mengele’s infamously vicious experiments. The twins’ time in Mengele’s lab forms the book’s first part; its second is occupied with the aftermath of Auschwitz’s liberation, as the Zoo’s survivors attempt to return to the places that were formerly their homes.
“Mischling” gains much of its momentum from emotionally astonishing moments. In one such moment, the twins’ mother, unexpectedly encountering Stasha, begs her daughter not to look at her, so that they can preserve the joy of reunion for less dehumanizing circumstances. Scenes like these, while occasionally overwrought, infuse an inhuman situation with a motivating humanity.
But Konar also allows for a degree of hope that feels forced, and there’s a strain of magical thinking in her treatment of the twins. Mengele’s lab changes both Stasha and Pearl but doesn’t quash their magic. That’s a beautiful idea, but a bit too wistfully optimistic to be fully credible.
In that, Konar — perhaps unconsciously — mirrors the misguided idealism present in some of her young characters. In crafting them, she said, she drew inspiration from the stories of children who, living through the Holocaust, were bent on vengeance.
“There was this one boy who talk[ed] about wanting to utilize these little pocket knives that the Nazis gave them as a weapon, these useless little pocket knives they were given to cut the bread,” she told me, referring to a story in “Children of the Flames.” The boy’s mindset, while violent, reflects a childlike faith in the power of the world to right itself; his faith has been altered and darkened by terror, but not destroyed by it.
“Mischling” is similarly torn between exposing the world’s capacity for meaningless cruelty and advocating some mysterious, more compassionate order to things. That may be an intentional matching of form to content, or it may be that, for Konar, the contrast between anguish and grace is essential to this chapter of Jewish history.