The Zone of Interest (2014) is not English novelist, Martin Amis’ first foray into the Holocaust as subject. In 1991 he published Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence, a technical tour de force in which all events happen in reverse chronological order: a simple meal begins with the regurgitation of food, which is then sculpted onto plate with knife and fork, wrapped in packaging, and eventually placed on grocery shelves, after one has been paid at ‘check-in’. It’s all very, very strange. And, with the reversal of time, comes the reversal of morality: doctors cause injuries, then acts of violence heal them. When this world of opposite cause and effect reaches the Nazi death camps, the implication becomes breath-taking: the Nazi doctors bring millions of Jews to life. The purpose of this inverted Holocaust? “To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with fire.” It was a controversial book. Only slightly less controversial is The Zone of Interest, which is both a black comedy and a love story, set in Auschwitz.
It must be said that Amis has his detractors. Though no longer regarded as the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction (he’ll be 70 later this year; grand-père terrible?), he has been criticized for being gratuitously cynical, trivialising the Holocaust, and using ‘content’ as a mere vehicle for technique; simply an excuse to ostentatiously display his extraordinary literary verve. But others have called The Zone of Interest a ‘profound, powerful and morally urgent’ novel, and ‘a masterpiece’. Amis himself considers it his best work.
One way of understanding Amis’ method in both novels may be found in a love letter that the novel’s hero and main narrator (of three), Angelus Thomsen (he’s an SS Officer at Auschwitz, but his given name may hold an unironic clue to how his character changes) writes to his beloved, Hannah (who also happens to be the Commandant’s wife – yes, it’s complicated). His love for her gives him hope, he tells her: “And now I feel I am starting again – and starting from nothing. But that is the state of mind of the artist, I’m sure: the diametrical opposite of what we call taking things for granted.” Early 20th century Russian literary critics developed the notion that the purpose of art was to ‘make things strange’ so that through art we would ‘see, as though for the first time’, rather than simply ‘recognise’. There have been thousands of books on the Holocaust, but few are as ‘strange’ as Amis’ novels. Ostensibly using the most horrific event in human history as a mere backdrop to a love story between two people on the wrong side of the moral divide certainly has the effect of startling the reader out of any sense of complacency, and arguably allows them to ‘see’ the enormity of the depravity afresh.
A second main character/narrator, the buffoonish, self-important and unutterably inhuman Commandant, Paul Doll (throughout represented comedically via Amis’ incisive satirical articulation – basically he’s a Nazi Miles Gloriosus) also ‘defamiliarises’: so dutiful is he to the great cause that while attending a local Christmas concert he becomes “immersed in the logistical challenge of gassing the audience.” Ever the word-player, Amis has the benighted Doll boast that he “likes numbers” but is “a little uncertain” by “’one’ – about whether it denotes a quantity, or is being used as a pronoun”. Henceforth in his narration, it’s “Greetings, 1 and all”, etc. The double satirical point here is that their ‘love of numbers’ helped the Nazis to be so good at mass murder, and that Doll’s discomfort with ‘one’ as a pronoun expresses his total lack of— one might say, fear of —self-reflection; for Amis, Doll may stand for the majority of the German people here, who, ultimately, are the focus of the book, e.g.the German attitudes (one can’t say ‘thinking’) that made it all possible, allowable: the ‘zone’ of interest.
The third character/narrator, who does not really fit Amis’ sardonic technique, is the Jewish ‘Sondercommando’ Szmul, one of the prisoners, whose forced tasks (do this, or be shot) include selecting which ‘evacuees’ will be put to work, and which killed immediately, and ‘processing’ the corpses (in Doll’s terminology, the “pieces”) before cremation, make him and his colleagues “the saddest men in the history of the world”. When Szmul is narrating, Amis’ satirical tone falls away to be replaced by essentially the voice of unimaginable pain and suffering. Szmul has stopped having nightmares because nightmares are “incapable of coming up with anything even remotely as terrible as what [he does] all day.”
Szmul’s chapters are much shorter than Thomsen’s or Doll’s, most of them just a page or two, partly because the sheer horror of his existence does not bear elaboration, but also because Szmul voices an inherent contradiction within any representation of the Holocaust: its nature transcends description, transcends language: “This pencil and these scraps of paper aren’t enough. I need something more than words.” Famously, film director Stanley Kubrick abandoned a long-projected film about the Holocaust because he determined that an accurate rendition was beyond the capacity of cinema.
Amis clearly disagrees, though, in an Afterword, he does admit to being defeated by the question, ‘Why?’, resorting finally to Primo Levi’s “Here there is no why.” At the same time, he takes solace from an exhortation from Levi not to understand – because understanding implies a degree of identification, and no one should ever identify with Hitler et al, whose deeds were not only beyond words, but beyond human.
The Zone of Interest is a remarkably and deliberately strange novel, an eloquent, sometimes anguished, always fiercely articulate expression of the inexpressible horror of the Holocaust, offering a poignant reassurance that, while it must never become so familiar as to go ‘unseen’, it is best not understood.