How should writers approach the Holocaust now? Need they still listen to Theodor Adorno's warning: "To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric?"
What about the words of the critic Elizabeth Hardwick who believed that works of art about the Holocaust should be "aesthetically commensurate with the Nazi history [it] spring[s] from?"
These are tricky problems, if you can call a novelist choosing as her subject the murder of 6 million at a moment in our history when the youngest living survivors are in their 70s "problems." Affinity Konar has clearly thought about them. She has written her second novel, "Mischling,'' the story of twin girls in Josef Mengele's "Zoo,'' a special section of Auschwitz, in the style of an adult fairy tale. It works, as much as possible, which is to say partly.
The title is the German word for "mixed," a classification used by the Nazis to send half and quarter Jews to their deaths. In the first pages, Stasha and Pearl, 12-year-old identical twins with blond hair and brown eyes, are asked whether they are mischling and learn that their grandfather's advice — to ignore such classifications — will, in this world, be impossible.
You could say that the story, told in chapters alternating between the twins' voices, is about the brutal excesses of classifications at the nightmare known as the Zoo. It is also about how the twins defy and escape these excesses.
The Zoo was the Frankenstinian creation of Josef Mengele, the so-called Nazi Angel of Death. Trained in anthropology and medicine, Mengele conducted unspeakably cruel experiments at the "Zoo," Barrack 14 of Camp F. He was especially interested in twins, on whom he thought he could test eugenic theories and perpetuate the master race.
Konar does not dwell on the horrors, but she does not stint on them either. Maybe worse than the physical tortures is the way Mengele and the Zoo break the twin's close bond with each other. "I was changed, made different from Pearl," Stasha recounts early on.
Konar is sensitive to the sleights of hand the twins adapt to survive. They sometimes caper or cavort. And yet the book does not seem gimmicky or glib.
Konar also dares to show how even in this cesspool of cruelty, some compassion exists. About Mengele's assistant, Miri, who dares to parcel out bits of humanity to the twins who may be sliced up like cuts of meat, Stasha observes that her kindness "must have been like stringing a harp for someone who played his harp with a knife."
The Zoo pushes the twins into a dream world. They become less and less sure when they are imagining, when they are lying, when what they see is real. The most chilling instance of this is when Stascha meets her mother (she has been in Auschwitz and is utterly transformed) in Mengele's laboratory and pretends not to know her.
About halfway through the book, Pearl disappears. Mengele has put her in one of his special dungeons, where it at first seems likely that she will die. Stasha is bereft.
But the gruesome plot detail leads to the biggest narrative chance Konar takes: to continue the twins's story after the liberation of Auschwitz. She follows each to a semi-happy ending in Poland.
As much as I admire the ambition of this choice, the post-war section seems willed, stuffed with plot details such as (spoiler alert) Stasha's reconciliation with her father, who had vanished one night before the rest of the family was sent to Auschwitz.
And then there is Stasha killing a dying woman to save her baby, using a kinder technique she remembered from the vivisections she saw Mengele do. "I think she saw the squirmer before she left," Stasha muses.
The word squirmer seems wrong here. But what makes me more uneasy is the idea that Stasha and Pearl can transform what they have seen into something good.
Konar is too smart to cast her novel as some sort of cliché about the triumph of the human spirit. But she clearly wants the reader to see that for these young women redemption can be salvaged from these experiences. "[W]e had to learn how to love the world once more," Stasha says at the end of the book.
That Stasha can express that possibility feels hopeful and extraordinary. And that's what bothers me. It's not really Konar's fault, per se. It's just I don't know if I'll ever be able to read a happy ending (even a small, partial one) in a novel about the Holocaust when, in the balance of history, so many were slaughtered.
By Affinity Konar. Lee Boudreaux/Little Brown, 344 pp., $27
Rachel Shtier is the author of three books, most recently, "The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.''