This is a hell of a book …
Why the need so often to be defensive about Martin Amis‘s oeuvre? I don’t get it, the negativity. (Well, I do, but, you know, get over it.) Because when he is good, which has been a lot more of the time than he’s been given credit for, none of his British contemporaries gets close (IMNSHO). An ex-librarian’s conscience – other people have reserved this book – made me zip through The zone of interest (Cape, 2014) at greater speed than writing of this quality, depth and invention deserves; not that it doesn’t function well enough as page turner, anyway.
He puts himself through it, does our Mart. So having ‘done’ Stalin and the Gulags with the brilliant biographical study Korba the Dread (2002) and the novel The house of meetings (2006), he here turns his hand to the Holocaust with a novel that is far from the conventional survivor’s tale. In his Acknowledgments & Afterward: That which happened at the end of the book – which includes a concise survey of the available literature on the extraordinary endeavour and inexplicable why of Adolf Hitler (who is never actually named in the novel’s text) and ‘the third Germany‘ – he says he wrote it “to discharge some obligation on the level of the meso and the micro”, the administration and management of the passengers alighting at the Auschwitz terminus of that railway line.
The zone of interest is played out sequentially, with events overlapping, in what read as if the journals of three people:
- Angelus Thomsen, philandering nephew of Martin Bormann, involved in some way with the Buhn, a factory development for the production of materials and fuels to make Germany self-sufficient staffed by the slave labour of the fittest off the train, who sees through the National Socialist hysteria;
- Paul Doll, Kommandant of Kat-Zet (Auschwitz, again not named in the text) who doesn’t, husband of Hannah, who scorns it, and who Thomsen falls in love with. (With a typical Amis flourish Doll consistently uses figures where you would normally expect numbers to be spelt out, so where he means ‘speaking personally’ becomes “I for 1“.)
- And the third voice, Szmul, a Jew who, to keep himself alive, plays an important role in the ground level welcoming workforce.
There is no wallowing in the horror; economically, matter of factly, the day by day picture emerges. The narrative driver churning away in the background is what turns into a love story. The crucial time period is that of the slow realisation of the failure of the disastrous Russian campaign. We also get glimpses of the failed Communist uprising in Germany in the wake of the First World War, the rise of the Nazi project and the madness of, among other things, the Theory of the Cosmic Ice entertained at the highest level of the regime.
The zone of interest is a powerful tour de force – emotionally, stylistically and structurally. There is a revealing distance that rises above the known, refreshes the picture, one might say – as said earlier, Hitler is never referred to by name, for example. Amis’s joy in words is still in evidence, though, not least in the weaving in and out of German vocabulary; words, phrases or job titles (at least one of which stretches well over one line in length) appear in the text, sometimes translated sooner or later, sometimes the meaning just suggested by context (as in particularly the description of body parts in regard to of sexual desire). We have the neologism of “in the concentrationary universe, where the pressure of death was everywhere”), astute word selection like “the assiduity of German hatred”, the dazzling juxtaposition of “Something happened at first sight. Lightning, thunder, cloudburst, sunshine, rainbow – the meteorology of first sight” (when Thomsen first sees Hannah), and the adverb that adds when a ruptured drainpipe is “drunkenly and loutishly spewing water“.
In this meso and micro concentrationary universe you get shocking, small nuances that chill and scream out the madness of the National Socialist project. So a middle manager suggesting, with the stats to hand, that productivity might improve in the Buhn if they treated the slave labour better, gave them just few calories more to eat, worked them a little less harder. so making them last longer, and so reducing the training needed, ends up being cited as treasonous. And Doll complains:
In the washroom of the Officers’ Club what do I find but a copy of Der Sturmer. Now this publication has for some time been banned in the KL, and on my orders. With its disgusting and hysterical emphasis on the carnal predations of the Jewish male, Der Sturmer, I believe, has done serious anti-Semitism a great deal of harm. The people need to see charts, diagrams, statistics, the scientific evidence – and not a full-page cartoon of Shylock (as it might be) slavering over Rapunzel.
The post-war denouement, a subverted narrative, heralds a disappointment of rare eloquence.