“The Zone of Interest” by Martin Amis (Alfred A. Knopf, 306 pages, $26.95)
Mostly an ossuary, the 20th century and its Nazi Holocaust remain on Martin Amis’ mind. And why wouldn’t they, given that there is no adequate response to Primo Levi’s question “Warum?”, which the Auschwitz survivor asked of his German guard. The guard replied, “Hier ist kein warum.” Why? Here there is no why.
Nevertheless, Amis, one of the premier fiction stylists working in the English language, continues to ask, trying to worm his way through to some sort of analysis of that which nominally defies analysis – mass killing based on ideological ravings carried out by otherwise “observably” normal people. In “Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence” (1991), Amis used Auschwitz as the setting for the story of a Nazi doctor who experimented on human subjects, narrating the tale in reverse order from the instant of the doctor’s death to the moment of his conception, perhaps thinking that reverse engineering might provide an imaginative clue to the riddle of banal evil. Amis returns to Auschwitz in “The Zone of Interest,” pursuing further clues, explanations and clarifications, this time by obliquely articulating the duties and personalities of various functionaries in their domiciles and headquarters at Kat Zet I, a labor-death camp that its commander describes as “a dumping ground for 2nd-rate blunderers.”
Kat Zet I is a rail terminus where Jews are off-loaded and sorted into two groups – those selected to die immediately, and those who are gassed later, after being worked nearly to death. Sometimes violinists greet the transports, to soothe the transition. The old and young, mostly, are sent off to the gas chambers immediately, their bodies burned and ground into ash, after their gold fillings, jewelry, clothing, hair and anything else useful for the Reich are sorted through by Jews. These undifferentiated remains are deposited in the Spring Meadow, which emits a terrible stench. Amis tells his story through the eyes of three major narrators.
Angelus (Golo) Thomsen is the nephew of Martin Bormann, nominally Hitler’s secretary, the man who “controls the appointment book of the Deliverer.” Thomsen is a labor organizer for the Buna-Werke, sweating blood from the prisoners, casting his “blue eyed Aryan” gaze on Hannah, the wife of the camp commander, Paul Doll. Thomsen is one of those rueful Nazis, part of the machine yet distanced from the dead, interested in his laurels and unbothered by the circumstance, assuming no blame. On the other hand, Paul Doll, the commandant, is a buffoon and sexual failure, whose Teutonic wife Hannah brutalizes him for sport. Even Doll’s children (two cherubic monster female twins) find him pathetic, as they twist him around their sporty little fingers. Mostly Doll drinks heavily (even the camp guards ridicule, privately, his alcoholism) and feels the pressure of being caught between the demands of the Economic Administration and Central Security — in other words, between the demands of death quotas and labor quotas. Finally, there is Szmul, head of the “Sonders,” Jews conscripted (with the promise of more, brief life) to graze for gold teeth among the cadavers.
The task Amis has set himself in this satirical, ironical and at times blackly comical novel is formidable. Using streams of half-German phrases that pile up like de-railed boxcars, dialogues which quiver and quail with official dogma and obscene strings of official nomenklatura (the Nazis had a hierarchy rivaling that of wolves, though based mostly on uniforms and decorations), and finally, interior monologues that reek of a “Hogan’s Heroes” scene gone terribly wrong, Amis herds the reader towards the end of the War and its final reckoning.
Actually, only Thomsen survives the War in 1948, one of those de-Nazified Germans working with the Americans on the “Bundesentcchadingungsgesetz” – setting up guidelines for reparations to the victims of the Holocaust, a supreme irony. What happens to the reader is less clear. The novel, with its Amis-brilliancy of wit and erudition, seems out of kilter with the vileness of the Holocaust. Its mixing-in of German sounds false and feels like a kick in the pants. In fact, the whole undertaking has an unpleasant voyeuristic aura as an artistic undertaking, full of bravura. There is, no doubt, a good reason why the best approach to the Holocaust comes from reading survivor memoirs or the original minimalist fictions of someone like W.G. Sebald. Amis himself, in an afterword admits his own helplessness to understand the Holocaust, the “electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip.”
Longtime Amis publishers in France and Germany have refused to translate and publish the book, though smaller publishers have agreed to take up the slack. The book was widely praised on its appearance in the United Kingdom. American critics have largely responded with praise as well. Better, however, to read the great works of history (Trever-Roper, Martin Gilbert), or any of the dozens listed in Amis’ afterword, or even a Kafka-dreamscape by Aharon Applefeld, than to hope that “The Zone of Interest” will clarify, much less answer, the original question, “Why?”
Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.