Chang and Eng Bunker were the original Siamese twins about whom much was written but little reliably revealed by the Barnum-level confabulations of mid-19th-century promoters and newspapers alike. The barest facts of their existence prove plenty fascinating. Documented are two fully formed males of roughly equal stature born connected at the chest by a ligament believed to house their shared stomach. They exhibited themselves all over the world to earn a living and eventually settled down as gentlemen farmers in Wilkesboro, N.C., where they married the Yates sisters and produced 21 children. What we can’t ever really know about these two, the intricacies of their relationship and its true bonds and rifts, are beautifully, convincingly envisioned in Darin Strauss’ novel, Chang and Eng.
It is Eng, the quieter, “less dominating” of the two–and the last to die–who narrates their lives. Or rather, his life; from the onset he asserts his separateness from Chang. Eng is bookish, swift to learn to speak and read English, while Chang retains throughout their lives what his brother disdainfully calls “immigrant speech.” But Chang quickly emerges as the showman, joking with their audience and entertaining reporters. “Back in line,” he admonishes gawkers who crowd in too close, “or you have to join us.” To a deposed prince exiled in London who offers the twins gold baubles instead of the customary admission coin (one crown), he quips, “Is because he has no crown.” Chang’s clever rebuke wins them notoriety–and assures them an endless parade of onlookers.
Introspective Eng, who performs ably but doesn’t yearn for the spotlight, is observed to be “more imbecilic than the other,” and “the one more like a mute.” There is little regard for Eng’s comprehension; these comments are invariably made in his presence. That same clinical dispassion toward the twins emerges during a press exhibition when a doctor announces it is probable that “the confinement of their situation, not to forget the sudden shift from their barbaric habits, will bring their life to a close within a few years.”
Rarely is there any acknowledgment that the boys might understand or respond to such a dire proclamation; they are considered primarily “attractions.” But death has always been lurking for the twins. Their career began at age 7 when they were torn from their mother by armed guards and brought to King Rama of Siam, ostensibly for beheading–the double child was thought to be a bad omen. And death is averted so long as they can hold their audience in thrall. A few gracefully executed flips, a charming retort, and even kings sigh. But should they venture out alone, a snarling mob is swift to form.
The brothers’ distinct identities are played against the public’s perception of them as one creature, the “monster,” or “mutant,” Chang-Eng. “Look, a half of it is crying,” notes one of King Rama’s royal wives, and in the next instant they are ordered to strip so she can see if they have one sex or two. Scratch one’s shoulder and the other responds! marvel physicians, but Eng chalks this up to mere proximity. The graceful accord of their movements he attributes to those wordless physical negotiations he dubs “the Silence,” not so much a telepathic or mystical connection as cooperation born from absolute necessity. Still, it is a state of being he basks in early on as they jointly repel attackers and run and leap in unison, achieving their own version of flight.
Separation of the twins is deemed impossible, though Eng longs for it. He does reach another level of detachment, and at intervals the sense of his isolation from Chang grows palpable. As they mature, their ambitions diverge sharply: Eng wants to return to their homeland, while Chang insists their fortune be made in America. Later, Chang dares to dream of marriage and family, a life resembling normalcy, and Eng demurs. But Eng capitulates, always. His mother’s words are never far from his thoughts: “A double-boy must never fight amongst yourself. … You may as well cut off your own head.” Subterranean rebellions stir up nonetheless, and fissures open between the brothers.
Strauss’ novel is layered in dualities, paired elements simultaneously enmeshed and in conflict. Most prominent is the backdrop of escalating Civil War tensions. Their contemporaries even employ the twins as a symbol of the Union: Barnum’s promotional flier proclaims them “One and inseparable, now and forever,” while Southern editorials decry their “barbarous union.” Secession and Reconstruction make fiercely apt metaphors for the twins’ agonizing need to break away and their flawed attempts to rebuild unity. Their marriages likewise constitute both a symbolic conjoining and severance from their old life; indeed, the narrative is split between these two lives in alternating chapters. The notion of persona, the bisected self, emerges in the disparities between the twins’ stage personalities and their private fears and desires. And marriage introduces a new duplicity–Eng’s secret longing for Chang’s wife. The duo is reflected everywhere, even in the sour muck of the Mekong river–and its Wilkesboro twin, the Yadkin.