Love in the Time of Genocide

The Zone of Interest

by Martin Amis

NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014; 320pp

…how did “a sleepy country of poets and dreamers,” and the most highly educated nation the earth had ever seen, how did it yield to such wild, such fantastic disgrace? What made its people, men and women, consent to having their souls raped — and raped by a eunuch (Grofaz: the virgin Priapus, the teetotal Dionysus, the vegetarian Tyrannosaurus rex)? Where did it come from, the need for such a methodical, such a pedantic, and such a literal exploration of the bestial?

These are the questions that orbit the singularity at the center of twentieth-century history. In his second Holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis sketches a few possible answers while acknowledging — in a thoughtful afterword — that we nevertheless “know almost nothing about the why.” In Time’s Arrow (1991), his first foray into this particular zone of interest, the Holocaust is glimpsed obliquely — like the Medusa reflected in Perseus’s shield — through the lens of Amis’s formal fireworks. The action happens in reverse: people spring to life and are packed on trains that take them away from concentration camps; relationships begin with rows and end in polite courtship; Tod T. Friendly, aka Odilo Unverdorben, grows ever younger. But despite this distancing device, it’s a surprisingly moving book; perhaps Amis’s best. The Zone of Interest confronts head-on what Time’s Arrow treats veilèdly.

There’s inevitably a question of taste. After all, The Zone of Interest, which is set in Auschwitz, is by turns a bureaucratic satire and a shaggy-dog love story. You might be forgiven, at first glance, for raising a questioning hand. But it turns out to be a really very boring question when faced with the book as a whole. It’s a lazy reader who misses the ethical endoskeleton beneath Amis’s lacerating satire. As a coda to each of the book’s acts, for instance, we hear from the Polish-Jewish Szmul, one of the Sonderkommando, the units charged with disposing of the remains of the Nazis’ victims, whose voice is heard in devastating counterpoint to those of the narrative’s principals, the grotesque kommandant Paul Doll and officer Angelus “Golo” Thomsen. And by Amis’s standards, in particular when measured against his last book, Lionel Asbo, even Doll and Thomsen are pretty restrained.

Szmul’s is the most recognisably Amish (?) voice: intellectually precise, coldly serious, freshly abrupt.

I’ll be thirty-five in September. That declarative sentence attempts very little, I know — but it contains two errors of fact. In September I’ll still be thirty-four. And I’ll be dead.

His utterances come in short sentences and paragraphs, more like pensées than prose. They are at the plain-style end of Amis’s technique. At the other extreme lies the Deutsch-English mongrel and high euphemism of Doll —

“Berlin has mandated an emergency Projekt. Things’ll be unpleasant here for a while […] It may have a deleterious effect on the air quality. Here, let me top that up for you.”

— and the Old World fastidiousness of Thomsen:

My shoulders were flat and broad, my chest slablike, my waist slender; the extensile penis, classically compact in repose (with pronounced prepuce), the thighs as solid as hewn masts, the kneecaps square, the calves Michelangelan, the feet hardly less pliant and shapely than the great tentacled blades of the hands.

Thomsen is a central-casting Aryan superman, Doll a leering, boozy demon reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’s Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993). In the opening pages, Thomsen falls in love with Doll’s wife, Hannah. The book then documents Thomsen’s efforts to seduce Hannah, including his attempts to locate her one-time lover, the Communist Dieter Kruger; Doll’s casual cruelties; and Szmul’s observations of a land where the snow is first ash-grey, then brown, “like the shit of angels.”

Always with Amis the pleasure lies in his style, the product of a fundamentalist’s aversion to cliché. At his best, and there are some wonderful setpieces here, he approaches the sentence like a Satanic surgeon, determined to remould it and in so doing see the world through new eyes. He peppers Doll’s sections with vulgar German puns, and finds a literal symbol for his obsession with numbers by reversing editorial convention and representing them exclusively as numerals (e.g. “The 2nd 1 was longer than the 1st, Herr Kommandant”). In Amis’s Auschwitz, context affectively transforms the language of bureaucracy — words like “finalise” — while casual exaggeration (“This is going to be an absolute nightmare,” “No rest for the wicked,” “I’ve come to believe that it was all a tragic mistake”) is implicitly censured. The language is characteristically electrified.

There are moments of dark poetry too. “Men the shape of gnawed wishbones.” The baroque horror of “the time of the silent boys,” a massacre performed in macabre silence but for the sound of gunshots and pistol-butt meeting skull. Thomsen and Hannah, ensconsed in a narrative largely oblivious to the suffering surrounding them, at one point hear a sound borne on the wind, “a helpless, quavering chord, a fugal harmony of human horror and dismay.” The sound, a jarringly beautiful metonymy for unspeakable pain. One might recall the consciousness at the center of Time’s Arrow, disturbed by a similarly concentrated image: “The figure in the white coat and the black boots. In his wake, a blizzard of wind and sleet, like a storm of human souls.”

The Zone of Interest‘s reception has been interesting. Michael Hofmann in the London Review of Books felt as if he’d “read nothing at all” and that the novel “abolishes itself as it goes along.” Neal Ascherson, in a perplexed piece in the New York Review of Books, suggests that the book’s conceptual strangeness — “a love story in Auschwitz”?? — demands of its readers “his or her own mental exercise.” I would suggest that Amis’s representation of life in a concentration camp is another way of answering the how question. Life, in the direst of circumstances, continues to generate romantic intrigue, bureaucratic carnage, and drunken misdecision. Such distraction, it seems, can be sufficient to permit atrocity to slip by. On the why question, he remains (wisely?) silent.

You can buy Martin Amis’s books at McNally Jackson.

Re Martin Amis

Martin Amis, photographed by Maximilian Schönherr in a hotel suite in Cologne, Germany, in 2012

Martin Amis was doubled on Saturday night at the New School. He was appearing as part of the tenth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, established by his great friend Salman Rushdie, who had a front-row seat for the occasion. Stage left was the real Amis, head cocked and battle-ready; opposite him sat interviewer and critic John Freeman; and between them was actor Anatol Yusef, who spoke only the historical Amis’s words, taken from interviews conducted since the 1970s in Interview magazine. The concept was simple but rather brilliant: Freeman would interview Amis-past and -present interactively, with Amis-present annotating, approving or contradicting his earlier selves. It was fascinating to watch.

Starting with The Rachel Papers (1973), Amis’s writing was inevitably compared with that of his father, Kingsley, whose most famous books include comic classic Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, winner of the 1986 Booker Prize. “I still think it delegitimises me in a weird way, having a writer-father,” said Amis-present, who’s written thirteen novels, several collections of short fiction and a wealth of criticism and social commentary. “I’m like Prince Charles, who talks with this sort of ex cathedra authority based on absolutely nothing at all. With me, everyone slightly suspects I got where I am through nepotism.” Now sixty-four, Amis has children of his own, but he was resistant to the idea that the family might automatically produce a third-generation writer. “It’s a very complicated thing, to encourage a child to follow your profession,” he said. Meditating on music and art, where dynasties of talent are much more common, he concluded: “There are no prodigies in literature. Only in chess, music and math, which have in common the fact that they have nothing to do with life; they don’t feed off life.”

Amis moved to Brooklyn three years ago but has written about America throughout his career, most notably in his non-fiction collections The Moronic Inferno (1986) and The Second Plane (2008), which deals with the post-9/11 experience, and in his 1984 novel Money. “I feel sort of half-American myself. I sometimes believe I can speak American… although I wonder if that’s an illusion.” Thinking more politically: “Anti-Americanism in Europe is almost automatic everywhere… and I could never sympathise with that. After all, it’s based on the only good revolution that’s ever been.” He was not entirely sans reservation, though. “Money has got into too many areas of American life: health, politics… It’s more like an oligarchy that has elections every four years. All the talk now about inequality is tremendously overdue; inequities are built in and almost ossified.” Quoting Saul Bellow, he commented, “It’s the country where, ‘if you’re so smart how come you ain’t rich?’ If I wrote a novel called Money now, God knows what direction it would go in…”

Freeman also asked about Amis’s famous literary friendships. A recent piece in Vanity Fair on the fatwa taken out on Rushdie twenty-five years ago includes a beautiful snapshot of some of them, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, including Rushdie and Ian McEwan. Going back in time, Granta’s 1983 list of the best young British novelists, many of whom have been Amis’s friends, is remarkable for its prescience. Sadly missing today, of course, is the late Christopher Hitchens, who never strayed into fiction. “Ian [McEwan] said it was because he didn’t have the temperament to sit around making things up.” Rereading his final book, Mortality, though, “if transposed into the third person and the past tense, it reads just like a novel slap-bang in the English seriocomic tradition. But, alas, everything in that book is gospel truth.”

And what was in the water when Amis was starting out that gave his generation the heft they turned out to have? “The great energising thing was the sexual revolution… It was of incalculable value to society.” Referring to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) on the alleged decline of violence in world history, he pointed out that one of the factors Pinker puts a lot of emphasis on, alongside the state’s expanded monopoly on violence and, flatteringly, the emergence of the novel, is the emancipation of women. “That’s what energised us.”

Looking ahead, Amis’s next novel, The Zone of Interest, will be published by Knopf in September. Like 1991’s Time’s Arrow, it will see him deal directly with the Holocaust. “If you’d asked me [before I wrote Time’s Arrow] who was the least likely British novelist to write about the Holocaust, I’d have said me,” he commented. It went on to become one of his best-reviewed books and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Time’s Arrow is an extraordinary novel because the action happens backwards — not like in the movie Memento, where the scenes are reordered to happen in reverse, but in rewind-motion. “The arrow of time is the arrow of morality,” said Amis, pointing out that, seen in reverse, you can slap a crying child in order to make him stop. The novel’s narrator sees the action in reverse and cannot comprehend its significance; the reader, knowing better, comes to see a well-known horror in a newly terrifying light. The Zone of Interest, which is already one of the most highly anticipated titles on the fall slate, will take a different tack: “it’s social realism of the same period.”

Further reading:

London Fields (1989) is many readers’ favourite Amis novel, a classic in what he calls the “mock heroic style in which we describe low things in a high style”.

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is a great introduction to Amis’s non-fiction, and includes great profiles of post-war literary titans J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, amongst others.

Experience (2000) is Amis’s award-winning memoir, though it says as much about Kingsley as it does about Martin. You can read an extract here.