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Posted on 13 Jun 2019 in Fiction |

LEAH KAMINSKY The Hollow Bones. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

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Leah Kaminsky’s second novel explores science, Nazi ideology, and the dangerous seduction of going with the flow.

The bones in Leah Kaminsky’s new novel, The Hollow Bones are bird bones: hollow and light, made for flying. The image of birds in flight and birds in death reoccur through her story of an ambitious young German scientist who just happens to be starting his career as his country comes under the thrall of the Nazis.

Ernst Schäfer is the sort of boy who collects leaves and feathers and eggs for display in his bedroom. His relationship with the equally outdoorsy Herta grows from childhood trail-partner to sweetheart. The pair marry and live in Berlin with a pet cat, moving fairly seamlessly into the elite social circles of pre-war Berlin.

History bears down quickly on this lively young couple. Spotting a smart young scientist who could be useful to the cause, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler draws Schäfer into the bizarre and chilling ideology of the Ahnenerbe, the fascist think-tank dedicated to ‘researching’ the biological basis for German superiority.

As a scientist completing his doctorate, Schäfer sees Himmler’s theories about an ancient Aryan warrior race rising out of the Tibetan Himalayas as arrant nonsense. There is also the small matter of the World Ice Theory: rejecting mainstream scientific theories of matter as too ‘Jewish’, Himmler prefers to believe that everything in the universe is made of tiny particles of ice.

But Himmler is offering something the adventurous hunter, collector and natural scientist desperately wants: international prestige and the opportunity to lead a well-resourced research tour into Tibet, into regions unmapped, with opportunities to collect rare animal specimens. Supressing any niggling doubts, and to Herta’s dismay, Schäfer falls right into line:

But no matter what Ernst thought privately of all this nonsense, if it meant in the end that the government was going to subsidise his expedition, he should not jeopardise this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to map and photograph a new landscape.

Meticulously researched, The Hollow Bones is based on the real-life story of Ernst Schäfer and his fellow expeditioners – including one obsessed with measuring skulls and lips to add to Nazi racial profiles – in the months before the outbreak of the second world war. Throughout, there is the discomfiting shift between a world of young love, boys’ own adventure and simple career advancement on the one hand and what we know of the looming Holocaust on the other.

Evil, as Hannah Arendt tells us, can be banal. It can come out of people simply trying to get ahead.

While The Hollow Bones works as a well-told account of how one scientist made his peace with the Nazi regime, there are other layers that speak directly to our own time.

One of these is the denigration and dismissal of science in favour of political expediency. Today we have a President of the United States who claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax; our own government is riddled with climate deniers. The Hollow Bones reminds us of the devastating consequences of prosaic decisions made in ordinary days at work.

While this book is about Nazism and science, it is also very much about animals. The depictions of industrial-scale hunting, skinning and stuffing bring to mind Melissa Ashley’s The Birdman’s Wife about Elizabeth Gould, wife of ornithologist John Gould. The great piles of bodies, the colonial impulse to kill, record, categorise and amass, appear in both books. To read The Hollow Bones is to become aware of the ghastly kinship between the piles of animal corpses and the piles of human bodies created partly in the name of science, albeit the perverted pseudo science of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe.

This brings us to the oddest character in The Hollow Bones: the taxidermied panda cub spending eternity in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. Like Schäfer himself, the panda is based on a real creature, one that Schäfer caught and killed on an early expedition with the rich young American adventurer Brooke Dolan. A quick Google search reveals images of the cub in its diorama at Drexel, just as Kaminsky describes it.

In its own voice, it describes its death all those decades ago:

I fell to the ground and cannot remember much, except when He came and cradled my head, staring at me with such love.

Yes, the panda cub loves his killer. Like a captor with Stockholm syndrome, the panda cub completely identifies with the goals of his captor. ‘My crucial role was to help Him understand Himself better in the world.’

This is odd, but for me it works. The cub is a baby animal, with a child’s naïve longing for love. Its death in Schäfer’s hands forms a kind of imprinting, as ducklings will bond with the first creature they see after birth. Its loving nature makes it morally superior to Schäfer, whose impulse is to plunder the world for his own glory. Schäfer is unworthy of the countless human beings and other sentient creatures that he personally, or indirectly, consigns to death.

The last words belong to Herta, who speaks to Ernst from beyond the grave. She reminds him that the thousands of specimens pillaged from the wild, now sitting in museums around the world, have much to say about men like him. ‘The most powerful language belongs to them. It’s the animals who make us human.’

In a brief Afterword, Kaminsky tells what became of the historical Schafer and his fellow expeditioners after the war. In most cases they enjoyed long lives and satisfying careers in their chosen fields.

As we slide into environmental disaster that threatens to claim millions of lives, human and animal, it is worth noting how the slide into evil can result from simply going with the flow.

Tracy Sorensen’s novel, The Lucky Galah (Picador, 2018) has been long-listed for the Miles Franklin award. She is researching climate change communication as PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst. You can visit her website here.

Leah Kaminsky The Hollow Bones Vintage 2019 PB 336pp $32.99

You can buy The Hollow Bones from Abbey’s here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.