A stomach churning novel

Martin Amis’s ‘The Zone of Interest’ is a genuine addition to the literature of the Holocaust.

Martin Amis’s ‘The Zone of Interest’ is a genuine addition to the literature of the Holocaust. (photo credit: MAXIMILIAN SCHOENHERR / WIKIMEDIA)
Martin Amis’s ‘The Zone of Interest’ is a genuine addition to the literature of the Holocaust.
AS IT was said of Graham Greene, his fellow English novelist of a previous generation, Martin Amis seems to produce two kinds of books: those, like “Money,” “Success” and “London Fields,” which are perceived primarily as entertainments, and volumes that deal with profoundly serious issues.
With Greene the profoundly serious meant Roman Catholicism (“The End of the Affair,” “The Power and the Glory”).
For Amis it means nuclear weapons (“Einstein’s Monsters”), Stalinism (“The House of Meetings,” “Koba the Dread”) and Islamic terrorism (“The Second Plane”).
Perhaps most challenging, Amis has also taken on the Holocaust, first, in 1991, with what even after a recent second reading I still consider the deeply unsatisfactory and even frivolous “Time’s Arrow,” and now, in his new novel, “The Zone of Interest.”
“The Zone of Interest” is neither unsatisfactory nor frivolous. But it is – if this isn’t too pusillanimous a term for a book set in Auschwitz – highly unsettling. To be sure, Amis doesn’t depict the mass murders and other horrors, but they are always just offstage, indicated by the perpetual stench, the drifts of gray snow, or the crack of a pistol.
Amis in fact attempts something even more daunting than a depiction of industrialized murder. He conveys his narrative via the fictional diary entries and internal monologues of an SS officer, a camp commandant, and a Sonderkommando-Führer – that is, the Jewish prisoner in charge of removing corpses from the gas chambers. In other words, Amis purports to get inside the minds of these unimaginable individuals, mass murderers and their enslaved victims, persons whose experiences are decidedly unlike those of most human beings.
So how credible are Amis’s creations? I’d say about as successful as just about anything else, fiction, nonfiction, memoir, that’s been written about the Holocaust, wherein we nod, Yes, of course, but… Meaning, all right, we accept what you write. Yet at the same time we as mere readers know only too well there are dimensions of this horror that we can’t even begin to apprehend.
According to the Acknowledgments and Afterword appended to “The Zone of Interest,” Amis has done deep reading into Holocaust history. And surely few writing in English today have the literary chops of a Martin Amis. And so yes, we’ll admit, if grudgingly, the characters in his death camp story seem credible.
This holds for Angelus Thomsen, purportedly a nephew of Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann and the SS Obersturmführer (first lieutenant) in charge of the Buna synthetic rubber and fuel laboratory at Auschwitz III, a forced labor camp. At least Thomsen knows what he’s doing is evil. But he handily puts that knowledge aside, tasked as he is with navigating his way between the irreconcilable demands from Berlin for increased industrial slave labor output and increased extermination of those very same slaves. Also fairly believable is Camp Commander Sturmbannführer (Major) Paul Doll; he’s a functioning lunatic, which is made clear if only by the fact that he’s constantly insisting to himself that he’s normal.
More problematic is Sonderkommando- Führer Szmul Zachariasz, the Jew damned to labor in the gas chambers and crematoria.
Testimonies from the very few surviving members of the Sonderkommando actually exist (as do testimonies from former camp commanders), but whether or not Amis accurately approximates anything like such a tortured soul’s thought processes is anyone’s guess. In this regard Amis provides a convenient explanation for Szmul’s persistence at his grisly work – a promise that his wife, still hiding in the Lodz ghetto, will be spared via the agency of Kommandant Doll.
That’s only one of the patently novelistic devices in “The Zone of Interest.” Indeed, the book’s main narrative engine is fueled by Thomsen’s desire to seduce the Kommandant’s wife. A secondary plot concerns the wife’s first lover. And if all this sounds as banal – yes, there’s that word – if all this sounds as banal as a soap opera, this is what gives the book its unremitting tone of irony.
As they go about their mundane and all too human lives, Amis’s Nazis are forever discussing the mechanics of mass murder.
“An unsympathetic observer,” says an SS man at one point as he gazes at the chimneys, “might find all this rather reprehensible.”
This irony has led some critics to categorize “The Zone of Interest” as a comedy, but whatever it is, the irony soon enough becomes wearisome.
Three hundred pages of such irony hammer this home to the point of headache.
If he does not go quite as far as Hannah Arendt’s likening Adolf Eichmann to a clown, Amis is insistent that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were mere men (and women), and not by any measure exceptional persons. “Under National Socialism,” Thomsen reflects, “you looked in the mirror and saw your soul. You found yourself out.”
The further irony is that even as early as December 1941 Amis’s Nazis know the war is lost – but they keep on killing Jews, something they will enthusiastically pursue even as the Red Army closes in on Berlin in 1945.
As for why the mad dream of the Final Solution was set into motion in the first place, Amis addresses this only in asides from his characters (Jews as enemies of the Aryan race, the Judeo-Bolshevik threat to the world, the bloodthirsty fiends who would do worse to Germans if given the chance, etc.).
The author in his Afterword takes on the question of motivation more directly, ready to throw up his hands yet sympathetic to the interesting dual theory of the German historian Sebastian Haffner, first that Hitler and his many followers were all too ready adherents to pathological politics, and second, that Hitler’s ultimate death wish was not the Jews but for Germany itself. Still, Amis writes, “Very cautiously I submit that part of the exceptionalism of the Third Reich lies in its unyieldingness, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip.”
But, of course, Amis is a novelist and not a political philosopher, and it must be said that as a novel “The Zone of Interest” is powerful indeed. It’s true, the characters have thin back stories; for a more convincing voice of an SS officer, see Jonathan Littell’s staggering 2009 novel, “The Kindly Ones.”
And Amis’s prose often disconcerts – much German here, some translated, some not, and some jarring Britishisms (knickers in a twist, keep your hair on, an absolute hoot, cheesed off). Some of his statements moreover are obviously derived too directly from his research. (In 1941 the Americans reportedly had no more army divisions than Bulgaria had; German troops had to hunt down animals that escaped from the Tiergarten Zoo after Berlin was bombed, etc.) Yet how this novelist can write. Here’s a comment on that bombed Berlin: “Whenever I looked out through the tinted windows I instinctively expected to see a stream of raised fists and rancorous faces. But no.
Women, women, women, of every age, and busy, busy, busy, not with the old Berlin busyness (getting and spending), just busy living, trying to buy an envelope, a pair of shoelaces, a toothbrush, a tube of glue, a button. All their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers were hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles away; and at least a million of them were already dead.”
Or, in the Zone of Interest itself: “I lit a cheroot – to fumigate my nostrils. The smell in Block 4(vi) was a different smell: it wasn’t the outright putrefaction of the meadow and the pyre, nor was it the smell diffused by smokestacks (that of cardboard with wetrot, moreover reminding you, with its trace of charr, that human beings evolved from fish).
No, it was the apologetic funk of hunger – the acids and gases of thwarted digestion, with a urinous undertang.”
To be sure, “The Zone of Interest” is persistently nauseating, which may be why Amis’s regular German and French publishers rejected the manuscript (alternative publishers were found). But the stomach-churning is as much a tribute to Amis’s literary power as the rising hairs on the back of one’s neck are a salute to Poe.
So is Martin Amis’s work of the imagination a genuine addition to the literature of the Holocaust? I’m afraid it is.