Cover of book: The Hollow Bones

Leah Kaminsky
The Hollow Bones

The protagonist of The Hollow Bones, Ernst Schäfer, is an ambitious young German zoologist and hunter. It is the 1930s and he has joined Himmler’s SS for the opportunities it will give him to lead a major specimen-collecting expedition to Tibet. He doesn’t buy into the Nazis’ crackpot notions of ancient Aryan settlements in Tibet, but is happy enough to accommodate team members who do, and is not advertising his doubts. He does get upset when the team doctor, Bruno Beger, accidentally kills a Tibetan while trying to take a mould of his head – but mainly because the incident could affect their progress to Lhasa.

The story of the expedition is as riveting as it is repulsive. Ernst Schäfer was a real person, as was Beger, and the expedition is well documented. Leah Kaminsky, a doctor, poet and nonfiction author who won the Voss Literary Prize for her first novel, The Waiting Room, delved deep into the archives to paint a novelistic portrait of a man of scientific passion, violent moods, intellectual vanity and a cold-blooded dedication to the hunt for zoological specimens. He once even killed a young panda, now preserved in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

We’ll return to the panda later. Another lovely creature Schäfer manages to bag is Herta, a vivacious young girl who was his best friend in childhood, and to whose congenitally disabled sister, Margarete, he was always kind. Herta is passionate about music – “her life’s breath” – and dreams of becoming a concert flautist. She is close to achieving this dream when, after years out of touch, she re-encounters Ernst, now a scientist and member of the SS. Childish attraction matures into love. Herta dislikes the Reich and its “unyielding rigidity, the categorisation of life itself” but “somewhere inside, she still found the real Ernst Schäfer, the kind boy she had known since she was a young girl”.

As for him: “A beautiful woman like Herta could be a wonderful asset to his career and wellbeing.”

Schäfer is utterly indifferent to music. He patronises Herta when she questions why he must kill what he wants to study: “It’s in the interests of science,” he says. “You wouldn’t understand.” She doesn’t see what’s so bad about Jews, either, but knows better than to voice that opinion in company. To marry an SS man, she must submit to an investigation of her racial purity and genetic soundness – Margarete’s existence must remain their secret. She also has to attend Nazi bride school where lessons include: “No opinions. No jokes. And no poetry.” Also, “no make-up, no gossip, no books … no hesitation, no impurity, no work outside the home”. The teacher orders her to give up the flute.

That Herta doesn’t run as fast as she can is a mystery. For all of the author’s research, she fails to make me understand why this spirited, intelligent and empathetic woman would sacrifice so much of herself for a temperamental and self-centred Nazi fun-sponge. She may have been real, but the fiction needed to make her true.

Kaminsky’s prose has a strong lyrical bent. It is beautifully crafted and there is an imaginative abundance of metaphors, many of which centre on birds – the title refers to the characteristic of birds that enables them to fly. Yet the end result is to impart a somewhat fey quality to Herta and an atmosphere of melodrama to the narrative as a whole. At moments of heightened emotion, pins clatter to the floor, ink spills, windowpanes shudder. Everyone plays to type: the awkward boy at a dance when Herta is 14 actually slobbers on her wrist; while visiting their home Ernst’s good friend Bruno, the Nazi doctor, kicks the crippled kitten she has adopted.

The real Ernst Schäfer successfully avoided conviction at Nuremberg, pleading that he’d only joined the SS to advantage his career. Yet as Kaminsky reveals in her afterword, he participated in the recording and filming of medical experiments in Dachau, including one in which prisoners died in “excruciating pain and convulsions” from oxygen deprivation. He may not have been a true believer, but he was no innocent, either.

The questions about the existence of evil and our capacity for inhumanity to our fellows that were raised by the Holocaust have never lost their relevance, as the Kurds, Yazidis and Rohingyas, among too many others, can sadly attest. Many novelists have probed these issues in their fiction, from concentration camp survivors including Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, to contemporary writers such as Bernhard Schlink, whose The Reader is a provocative and moving examination of innocence and culpability. The Argentinian-Canadian author Alberto Manguel deals with what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” in a different historical context in News from a Foreign Country Came, in which a family man’s past as a torturer catches up with him. I’m not sure quite where The Hollow Bones sits in this vast and vital body of literature. It flits between being a sentimental, if weird and fated, romance and a Nazis’ own adventure story. I am not sure quite what the point is – and that brings us back to the panda.

There are a number of interludes in which the panda, sitting in its vitrine in the Philadelphia museum in the present day, wryly observes the goings-on around him while reflecting sentimentally on his bond with Schäfer, his killer, who he says was “as devoted to me as a father”. The panda’s voice is weirdly knowing, archly naif: he speaks of “Woman” who “sharpens her talons” and “rubs blood on her lips” but also references Michelangelo’s David and identifies Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” as the song to which “Guard” dances when he thinks he’s alone. Even more unbelievably, he expresses his inexplicable gratitude to Schäfer for the German’s “desire to make sense of his world”. Would a Jew, murdered in the name of Nazi “science”, share such sentiments? Kaminsky would never have intended this logical leap. So, then, for whom does the panda speak?

Vintage, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 9, 2019 as "Leah Kaminsky, The Hollow Bones".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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