Martin Amis has been ruminating on the Holocaust and its perpetrators since he was a child. “No serious person ever thinks about anything else,” he has said, quoting the writer WG Sebald.
His preoccupation first took fictional shape in 1991 with Time’s Arrow, the story of a Nazi doctor, narrated by the doctor’s soul and told backwards from death to birth. The book sharply divided critics. Some accused Amis of cheap tricks and artistic bad faith; others saluted his technical virtuosity and depth of purpose. Now Amis has returned to the subject of the Holocaust with The Zone of Interest, one of the most challenging and discomfiting novels I’ve read in a long time.
The year is 1942. Angelus Thomsen is a civil servant at Auschwitz, overseeing construction of the Buna-Werke, a massive industrial plant for the manufacture of synthetic rubber. His actual zone of interest is seduction not production, and his current object of desire is Hannah Doll, young wife of the camp Commandant, Paul Doll. When things don’t turn out as Angelus plans, his feelings deepen from lust to love. Hannah should, in any case, be strictly off-limits, but as Angelus says, this was “a time when everybody felt the fraudulence, the sarcastic shamelessness, and the breathtaking hypocrisy of all prohibitions”.
Put aside for a moment the shamelessness of setting a love story in Auschwitz (and a comic love story at that), and consider the bigger question of what exactly people might feel (or allow themselves to feel) in such a place and at such a time. Is Angelus’s “love” for Hannah monstrously callous or redemptively human? Should we regard it with cynicism or relief?
The “zone of interest” turns out to be a strategy used by each of the characters to frame reality in ways he or she can live with, even when that frame grotesquely distorts reality. As the novel progresses, the “zone” expands for some, contracts for others. Paul Doll, psychotically committed to Nazi ideology, is increasingly myopic. He sees not mangled corpses, but “stucke” – pieces. The mass graves are “the Spring Meadow”, the gas chambers the “Little Brown Bower”. Intimacy with his wife is reduced, tellingly, to spying on her through a two-way mirror in the bathroom. Very occasionally, Paul’s focus falters: “If what we’re doing is good, why does it smell so lancingly bad? On the ramp at night, why do we feel the ungainsayable need to get so brutishly drunk?”
Angelus, meanwhile, is slowly facing the impact these distortions are having on him as a human being. His “zone of interest” now includes “the figures in city business suits, designers, engineers, administrators from IG Farben . . . daintily picking their way past the bodies of the wounded, the unconscious, and the dead”.
One of the many challenges of writing about the Holocaust is how to revivify the reader’s responsiveness to what Primo Levi called “the nature of the offence”; how to break through the protective numbness induced by the familiar horror. In Time’s Arrow, Amis solved the problem through temporal inversion. Here, he opts for a more conventional narrative – told in turn by Angelus, Paul Doll and a Jewish prisoner, Szmul. The demands on the reader come, instead, from the comedy.
Amis takes merciless aim at every form of ludicrousness: the Wagnerian names – Suitbert, Romhilde, Baldemar; the cumbersome titles – the Untersturmführers and Sturmbannführers; the euphemisms, acronyms and platitudes. He concocts an ingenious blend of real and spoof German to skewer the grandiosity, the pomposity, the sheer illogicality of National Socialism.
It’s impossible not to enjoy the jokes and, still more, the extraordinary ease with which Amis moves through the comic register, yet the novel’s overall tone and effect is sombre. Linguistic buffoonery becomes a proxy for moral and emotional bankruptcy. Language itself becomes a weapon for killing truth. “There isn’t a funny side of the Holocaust,” Amis said after the publication of Time’s Arrow, “You don’t swagger in there just for the hell of it. You have got to have something to say.”
So what is Amis saying? For Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night (1961) the message was, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In The Kindly Ones (2006), Jonathan Littell had Max Aue, the SS executioner, assert, “I am a man like other men, I am a man like you.” Amis explores both these ideas but his main message concerns how the Holocaust affected the people who, actively or passively, made it happen.
The novel is not without faults. There are lapses into cliché and sentimentality and, more problematically, Hannah remains an undeveloped character. The relationship between her and Angelus is not remotely credible. Neither character conjures much sympathy. Whether or not Amis intended them to, I could not decide.
This is not a book to read for comforting certainties about any aspect of the Holocaust, but ultimately, Amis seems to concur with Hannah Arendt’s view in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) that even under totalitarianism there is always a moral choice, however politically powerless the chooser. The Zone of Interest harrows in the true sense of the word, churning up our preconceptions and assumptions. It is a work of artistic courage, chilling comedy and incontestable moral seriousness.
The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, RR£18.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 320 pages
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)