Amis, Martin. “The Zone of Interest: A Novel”, Knopf, 2014.
Can Man Survive?
This new book by Martin Amis has not yet been publishes in the United States (although it is coming out this week) but it is already being called controversial. I was lucky enough to get a copy from England and I am not sure what this controversy is all about. “The Zone of Interest” is a love story that takes place in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany during World War II. While this is something of a love story, it is so much more—it is a mystery, the tale of friendship, a historical novel about the darkest time in the history of the world, a look at friendship and a challenging story of insanity and bravery.
Every chapter has three sections and each is told in a different voice. There is Golo Thomsen, the supposed nephew of Martin Bormann and we see him as a civilian who is watching what is going on. Then there is Paul Doll, the commandant of the camp and whose wife is desired by Golo. The third voice is that of Szmul, the head of the Sonderkommando, the rotating force of Jews responsible for marshaling their own people through the gas chambers and crematoria. At first thought the three voices seen to be dedicated to the mission of the concentration camp which was the murder of thousands and this was regarded just as a job that had to be done, As we read, we see that attitudes change. In the beginning Szmul’s job and his moral dilemma was intriguing as was Thomsen’s objectivity and intellectualism and the silliness of Doll made him seem to be quite human. He later becomes a victim of his own paranoia and we see him as something of a clown.
While Amazon has labeled this as a love story it is more about the death of everyone involved in the Final Solution. I saw something of Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil and the stupidity of the world as the eradication of the Jews was being carried out. I see this book as an exploration into the lives of those who participated in it and it is therefore a very dark look at that horrible time.
The story is set at the Monowitz Work Camp, sometimes known as Auschwitz III. It was built at the request of German industrial giant I.G. Farben to serve as a source of free/slave labor for its Buna Werke factory; synthetic rubber was to be produced there and it was to aid the German war effort.
What you have just read is as much of the plot that I can give and as I write this I find myself wondering if there even is a plot here. The story takes us through each character’s lives in the camp and details their relationships to the other protagonists. There is no single character here, with the exception perhaps of Szmul, who has enough moral gravitas for the reader to develop any affection or affinity for. Each character is guilty in his or her way of `sins’ of omission or commission in a setting in which they bear witness to and participate in the slaughter and death that marked life in the camps. As the story progresses and their lives of the characters are presented, we can only hope that the protagonists will find some way to be able to leave their black hearts behind and escape the madness. Here we truly see man’s inhumanity to fellow man. We really see how fiction can show the terrible horrors of genocide with extreme clarity. In fact it is the emotional clarity that we get here that is one of the major themes of the book.
As I began the book, I thought to myself that the details of the Holocaust with all of its horrors has been told and retold over and over again in histories, memoirs, novels and stories. The political, moral, and theological questions have been asked and have remained, as with all great questions about the past, fundamentally unanswerable. So then I had to wonder what Amis could tell us that was new and he chose to do so with fiction. (Actually the truth is still so unbelievable that there are times that it seems to have been fiction yet we have the proof that it all happened.
“The Zone of Interest” places emphasis on the ordinary, banal emotional lives Nazi officials who were able to live and live well despite being surrounded by routine suffering and casual murder. We are reminded early, in the first few pages of the novel, that one of the ways people can live through something like this is simple refusal to think about them. There is much here that many will find familiar, though something so upsetting can hardly cease to shock simply because one has heard it before and put it in the back of his mind. What makes the Holocaust so fascinating is not the mass murder but the routine, industrialized process the Nazis developed and this is in conflict with the modern assumptions about the relationship between mass murder and civilization. Amis shows that man’s inhumanity to man was more a logistical than a moral problem.
We find no answers here just as we find no answers anywhere about how the Holocaust happened and how it came to be. Amis cannot answer these questions that even great scholars have been unable to answer, What he did and did brilliantly is to give us this book in which he stresses the events and then imagined how people lived and died with what they had to endure. He implies, I think, that we can deal with the Holocaust but we can never understand it. I also think that Amis is telling us here that evil will not endure but art will.
At the end of the book there is a combined bibliography and historical note in which Amis confesses that none of his reading can make any logical sense of the Final Solution. It is simply inexplicable, an act of madness.
It is difficult not to think about this book after finishing it. The characters, their actions, the time in history it was based in, the madness will stay with us for a very long time if not forever. I doubt that any novel can truly portray the nature of the Holocaust and Amis should be praised for attempting to do so.
The novel is verbose and absolutely brilliant. Amis writes with an audacious satiric voice about mass psychosis and personal hate and anger and the result is sheer brilliance.