The Hollow Bones…
About the Book:
The Hollow Bones implores us to pay careful attention to the crucial lessons we might learn from our not-too-distant history.
‘I remember you once told me about mockingbirds and their special talents for mimicry. They steal the songs from others, you said. I want to ask you this: how were our own songs stolen from us, the notes dispersed, while our faces were turned away?’
Berlin, 1936. Ernst Schäfer, a young, ambitious zoologist and keen hunter and collector, has come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who invites him to lead a group of SS scientists to the frozen mountains of Tibet. Their secret mission: to search for the origins of the Aryan race. Ernst has doubts initially, but soon seizes the opportunity to rise through the ranks of the Third Reich.
While Ernst prepares for the trip, he marries Herta, his childhood sweetheart. But Herta, a flautist who refuses to play from the songbook of womanhood and marriage under the Reich, grows increasingly suspicious of Ernst and his expedition.
When Ernst and his colleagues finally leave Germany in 1938, they realise the world has its eyes fixed on the horror they have left behind in their homeland.
A lyrical and poignant cautionary tale, The Hollow Bones brings to life one of the Nazi regime’s little-known villains through the eyes of the animals he destroyed and the wife he undermined in the name of science and cold ambition.
‘World Ice Theory is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, overthrowing that madman Einstein and his Jewish pseudoscience. The Führer has at last accepted it as the scientific platform of the Reich. And rightly so. We know the truth now, that ice crystals are the true building blocks of the universe, not those imaginary atoms. You, young man, will travel to Tibet to head into the bowels of the earth where Fire and Ice went to war, and the ancestors of the German Volk emerged triumphant as Sonnenmenschen. Perfect beings, as radiant as the sun.’
The Hollow Bones tells one of the most unique and sinister tales of WWII that I have ever read. It’s utterly compelling and profoundly thought provoking. It pulled me in so many directions, and even when I thought that something was either black or white, the prism would shift and all of a sudden shades of grey would seep in and collapse my convictions.
‘We are men of science, not followers of fairy-tale and superstition. This notion of a lost civilisation of Atlantis rising up somewhere in the desolate foothills of these mountains is a fatuous lie, and you know it. It corrupts our expedition and the reputation of German science.’
The science of Nazism is not something I was familiar with and it really blew my mind, to be honest, that people believed in this World Ice Theory. There were people in power, those in the decision making positions within the Third Reich that wholeheartedly believed in it. And they whipped others up into a frenzy over it, espoused it, and financed expeditions to prove it. Of note though, the scientists who were funded for the Tibet expedition, did not all believe in World Ice Theory. Obviously, as scientists, they possessed enough intelligence and rationale to dismiss it as the lie it was. But publicly, it was a means to an ends for them. And this brings us to one of the main focus topics within this novel: At what point does a person become culpable? If you’re taking advantage of what a regime has to offer to further your own scientific research, and career, are you automatically complicit in all of the atrocities that regime has committed? Can you remain distanced? For Ernst, he seemed to consider that he was a scientist first, and an SS Officer second, and only the latter out of necessity.
‘But you know I’m not one of them, Herta. I’m just a scientist.’
Ernst was such a complicated man. On the one hand, I do believe that he loved the natural world, birds in particular. And I don’t really know if he was just a product of his era, where the preservation of the natural sciences was very different to what it is today. But on the other hand, he loved to hunt. And I just couldn’t get those two philosophies to marry up. Neither could his wife, Herta.
‘Watching him speak so animatedly to his fellow hunters, she saw a side of her husband she would never be able to reconcile with her childhood image of him. How could a man who held such a deep reverence for nature and all its gifts at the same time be its destroyer?’
I did really like how this story was told by both Ernst and Herta. They loved each other very deeply, for so long, but the Nazi ideology drove a wedge between them, not that Ernst was a steadfast Nazi, but more the opposite: he was complacent, believing only in his science, he didn’t care about Nazism, if they wanted to give him money to go to Tibet, his dream destination for research, then he wasn’t going to knock it back. He didn’t consider the shoes he was filling, the Jewish scientists who had been pulled from their positions and shipped to death camps. He joined the SS at the prompting and organisation of his father, who in turn did it to secure Ernst’s safety and career path. I can’t help but wonder how many people saw the writing on the wall early on and chose self-preservation over morality, joined the Nazi party and sold their souls as a mean of survival. It’s a very murky, grey area. Many of these people joined in the early days, before the regime really kicked in with force, before ‘the madness descended’. I could see where Ernst was coming from, but I could also see where Herta was as well. As a musician at the Conservatory, she saw Jewish musicians losing their positions, only to be replaced by inferior German ones. It bothered her, a lot, both its occurrence and that Ernst didn’t seem to object. As I mentioned above, Ernst was a complicated man and I really feel that he has come to life within this novel with all of his complications laid bare. He confused me, how much he loved the natural world yet sought dominion over it. He claimed to not be ‘one of them’ (the SS), and yet he was not outraged by the persecution of Jews and happily profited from their elimination. I wanted to be repelled by him, and I was, but then, at times, I also wasn’t. It was unsettling, to say the least.
‘He surveyed the room, which held almost the sum total of who he was. His achievements were measured in head counts, in the preserved corpses of animals he’d carefully plucked off this earth.’
‘As people gazed through the glass at the dioramas of natural-history museums around the world, they shared in the wonders of nature, and its serenity. They didn’t realise it was impossible to be a hunter without loving the animal you chased. Somehow, he needed to make Herta see that he was a dedicated chronicler of the wild, sacrificing his own comfort for future generations, so that through his work all might witness the beauty of this earth.’
I loved Herta. She was such an amazing woman and I felt so deeply sorry for her. To my mind, she was a ‘reluctant Aryan’, a woman who filled the Nazi bill to perfection but wanted no part of it. She struggled with the ideology, was repelled by the anti-Semitism, couldn’t accept that Ernst, her beloved husband, could sell out without conscience. The tragedy of their marriage really rocked me and it also solidified who Ernst was, deep inside. The science, it was everything to him, and nothing was going to come before it, much less risk it.
‘This was how she woke of late, the shadows filling the musty corners of the room. They winced in the light when she pulled back the curtains. Some days, she opened her eyes at dawn thinking it was dusk, hoping the long day ahead might already be over. Through the gauze of half-light, she stared at her blank face in the mirror. She recalled how she used to greet each day with bursting excitement at first, dreaming and planning for her future with Ernst, ignoring her father’s apprehensive gaze. The whispering in her head never stopped.’
There is another aspect to this novel that adds to its unique appeal. We have a third perspective offering a side to this story, a very different side. A voice from the present day, Panda, is telling his story from behind the glass in the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia. He was shot by Ernst in the early 1930s during his first Tibetan expedition, and was then preserved for the museum. I saw a picture of Panda online, I looked it up after reading this novel. It made me cry. Leah had made him real for me, breathed life into him, and it was too soon after reading the novel for me to have seen a picture of him. This beautiful baby panda, his life cut short so that he can spend eternity staged behind glass. I have never liked taxidermy. When I was younger, I spent several months in Europe, and our home base was in Belgium, staying with my Great-Aunt. She had so many birds stuffed and mounted, staring unseeing out forever, collecting dust. It creeped me out and made me sad in equal measure. I kept thinking about those birds while reading this novel. Panda’s voice is pragmatic, his view if the world singularly poignant, and his role is all the more powerful on account of it. As a storytelling device, the inclusion of Panda was both unique and brilliant.
‘I trouble them; my Death makes them feel uncomfortable. But how is my Eternal Life any worse than Crocodile whose skin covers President’s feet, or Cow whose hide is worn by Small around her middle? I command more respect than the Animal Parts they wear, carry, eat; at least my life has not been anonymously erased.’
The Hollow Bones is one of those novels that will haunt me; that I’ll always keep a copy of on my shelf; one I will recommend and talk about for years to come. I am so grateful to Leah Kaminsky for writing this novel, for enlightening me on this part of history that I had up until now known nothing about. The Hollow Bones is highly accessible literary historical fiction, a study on the intersection between science, politics, and the natural world. I absolutely loved this novel and recommend it widely.
‘He could close his eyes anywhere he went on earth and tell exactly where he was, just from local birdcalls. Their plaintive, wailing cries spoke the language of his heart.’
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Hollow Bones for review.
About the Author:
Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician-writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The Hollow Bones
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released 5th March 2019