Whenever R.E.M. released any of their last half dozen albums, I used to say that they should call it Return to Form: that, after all, was what everyone was desperately hoping for – though without much hope. In reality there were always critics handy who would call it that anyway. Return to form is such a loaded phrase, ostensibly positive but carrying ahead of it the acknowledgement that the recent work has been sub-par. On the other hand, it does say that there was a form worth returning to.
And as for us – the consumers – because we have human loyalties, we want artists we admire to continue to produce good things, and it is tempting to overstate its quality to make our expectations fit. I consider myself a long-term liker of Martin Amis’s work, growing to love his stuff gradually (The Rachel Papers, Success, Other People) and then suddenly (Money) around twenty years ago. But I haven’t thoroughly loved one of his novels since 1997’s Night Train (the brilliance of which was revealed to me over four readings, with much assistance from Janis Freedman Bellow’s brilliant essay). Yellow Dog (2003) was messy, with great bits (Clint Smoker) and baffling bits (101 Heavy). House of Meetings (2006) I admit I can’t remember much about. The Pregnant Widow (2010) had a cracking prologue – a return to form! – but quickly turned into the only Martin Amis novel I haven’t finished since Dead Babies. Lionel Asbo: State of England was hammered by its title before the start, but it was often funny. And now – spoiler alert – I find myself questioning what I have just written, because I liked The Zone of Interest so much I wonder if I need to reevaluate my view of those recent works. It’s not just me. Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, a reliable critic, breached the embargo (which ends today) and reached for the superlatives. Mark O’Connell, another astute reader, found himself wondering, “Am I crazy or is this actually very good?”
The Zone of Interest tells us not much in its blurb, just that this is “a violently dark love story set against a backdrop of unadulterated evil.” But it would be impossible to write about the book without discussing its setting. Few readers will come to it unprimed, but for them Amis teases, pulls back the sheet slowly: we’re in the KL or sometimes K-Z, then the Kat Zet, then – oh no, oh yes – the Konzentrationslager. The term becomes fuller each time, until we cannot ignore it: we are in Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, or more accurately in the ‘zone of interest’ (Interresengebiet), an area 40km² around Auschwitz that was commandeered by the Nazis to shield the camps both from Allied attacks and from the outside world knowing about them. One of the curiosities of books about the Holocaust is that I always feel that no subject could be more written on and over, yet I invariably discover just how little I know. Amis, in his 8-page afterword (how often do new novels come with those? Maybe he knows it’s a return to form too), details dozens and dozens of books that have informed the novel, which I found astonishing. It seemed to me a character-driven story, and only on flicking back can I see how the research has gone in subcutaneously, not visible on the page (there’s no what we might call ‘As you know, Bernhard…’ dialogue) but clearly informing every line.
The principal characters are three narrators, whose voices alternate. First is Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, nephew of Martin Bormann and employed at the Buna-Werke, the I.G. Farben rubber factory within the Zone of Interest. “Almost hourly, here,” says Thomsen, “you felt you were living in the grounds of a vast yet bursting madhouse.” Orders have just been received to build a third concentration camp – later known as Monowitz – on the site of the Buna-Werke, which causes additional stress for the already highly-strung camp commandant, Paul Doll – our second narrator, and known to his colleagues as “the Old Boozer.” It is not just the pleasures and sorrows of work that unites Thomsen and Doll: Thomsen, a big broad Amisian giant, is a renowned … what’s the German for ‘cocksman’? – and is deeply in lust with Doll’s wife Hannah. Thomsen’s observations on Hannah Doll are in keeping with their setting in a place filled with all the animal urges but not much love. She is “certainly built on a stupendous scale: a vast enterprise of aesthetic coordination,” and, more bluntly, “I said to myself: this would be a big fuck. A big fuck.” Doll has his own erotic interest, though limited: “You’re seldom tempted, because so few of the women menstruate or have any hair.” Golo Thomsen and Paul Doll both open their narratives with promises of variation: Doll reports “acute tension, then extreme relief – then, once again, drastic pressure” as a minor triumph over adversity makes way for the much greater headache of the construction of the third camp. Thomsen begins – starts the book – with Amisian repetition:
I was no stranger to the flash of lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt. Enviably experienced in these matters, I was no stranger to the cloudburst – the cloudburst, and then the sunshine and the rainbow.
But these promises of highs and lows are wildly optimistic: for most of the book the only way is down, and we get there with our third narrator, Szmul. He opens his narrative with no hope at all. “We are the saddest men in the history of the world … we are infinitely disgusting, and infinitely sad.” We are the Sonderkommando, the Jews who work in the gas chambers, who cheated death in order to spend their time scurrying over dead Jews for valuables. “Nearly all our work is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders.” Szmul’s chapters are short: he is a man who has almost run out of things to say, whom language has begun to fail.
Language is central here. That might seem a needless observation, but one thing few deny of Amis is his ability still to swing a sentence with all his original power. Here, the language fits the subject and story in several ways. There is the blunt physicality of the descriptions: Szmul’s list of tools above, or “smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses,” which says everything in five words. There are the euphemisms: Doll’s role is in “Protective Custody”; the Wannsee conference, which rubber-stamped the Final Solution, was about approving “the proposed evacuations to the liberated territories in the east.” There is the doublethink: Doll reflects that after Szmul has outlived his usefulness, he “would have to be dealt with, by employment of the apt procedure.” At a lower level, too, Doll’s language distorts: his descriptions of body parts are untranslated (Titten, Brustwarten – those places where you might expect a man like him to become tongue-tied). This apt discord extends to modern phrases unexpectedly used: “This was going to be an absolute nightmare!” reflects Doll, on the building of the third camp, and we might detect pretty savage irony there too. Amis adds lightness of a sort with an extravagant range of very long German words (“tinkertoy accumulation” as Tod Friendly in Time’s Arrow put it), a comical excess of language from Kriegsgefanngnisse to Klempnerkommandofuhrer to, beautifully, Militarbereichshauptkommandoquartier.
Comical excess is a trademark of Amis’s, but can you have comedy in Auschwitz? (Can you have a love story set there?) Can it be funny? Can it meet comedy’s requirement of triumph over adversity? (The cloudburst, then the sunshine and the rainbow.) Certainly there is comedy of sorts here: discomfiting, ugly comedy, like the broad irony when Doll, speaking of the Sonderkommando like Szmul, writes, “Ach, I can hardly bring myself to set it down. You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comedy works because it only serves to highlight the horrors. The Germans worry about how they are going to keep order, keep the new arrivals in a state of blissful ignorance about their fate. Once, when struggling to dispose of the bodies of Jews, the German soldiers try blowing them up. Paul Doll, wondering why he can hear “popping, splatting, hissing,” asks and is told:
“It went everywhere. There were bits hanging from the trees.”
“What did you do?”
“We got the bits we could reach. On the lower branches.”
“What about the upper bits?”
“We just left them there.”
Is this real? Did Amis dare to invent it? Anyway the use of “it” to describe the remains of Jews is a euphemism of another sort, a kind of protective custody for the Germans to prevent them from associating their actions with people. Similarly, Doll uses “Stücke” (literally, “pieces”) to describe the Jews when accounting for them and calculating his requirements for the third camp at Auschwitz.
The Germans worry too about how quickly the Jews who are selected for work in the camp die, not for humanitarian reasons, but because it is inefficient, and there are passionate exchanges between those Germans for and against treating the working Jews better, in order to prolong their productivity. They worry about the smell of the corpses, how far it will travel and signal the truth. There are so many horrible details – the smells, the selections for who will work and who will die, the use of surgeons during interrogation – that it does seem surprising that the characters in The Zone of Interest remain so strongly in the foreground. Thomsen and Doll are on a collision course, Hannah Doll is trapped between them, and Szmul is in hell, disgusted by his sense of self-preservation, and for others a welcome conduit for disgust. “Why don’t you rise up?” Doll asks him. “Where’s your pride?” Then:
Ach, if they were real men – in their place I’d … But wait. You never are in anybody’s place. And it’s true what they say, here in the KL: No one knows themselves. Who are you? You don’t know. Then you come to the Zone of Interest, and it tells you who you are.
“No one knows themselves.” A theme here is the ineffability, the unknowability, of what and how in Auschwitz. (We don’t even ask about the why: “Here there is no why,” Amis reminds us via Primo Levi in his afterword: the phrase also gave the title for a chapter of Time’s Arrow.) We see it as a clash not just of civilisation against barbarism but between worlds: a world which makes sense and a world which does not. Thomsen sees his cat catch a mouse which, while dying in its jaws, “seemed to be smiling an apologetic smile.” What, Thomsen, wonders, was it saying? “It was saying, All I can offer, in mitigation, in appeasement, is the totality, the perfection, of my defencelessness.” What was the cat saying? “It wasn’t saying anything, naturally. Glassy, starry, imperial, of another order, of another world.” It is perhaps the “hidden world” that Thomsen believes in, running alongside our own and existing “in potentia; to gain admission to it, you had to pass through the veil or film of the customary, and act.” (Nicely understated, the “customary”, to describe what the Nazis deviated from with the Final Solution.)
This other world that the Nazis have made for themselves, and for others, is, Thomsen discovers, endless, incapable of being seen beyond, like “the great Eurasian plain, which stretched over twelve time zones and went all the way to the Yellow River and the Yellow Sea.” We get a sense of men involved in a task they cannot escape, that has taken on a life of its own – they are engaged in a Vernichtungskrieg, a war to nothing. The Zone of Interest succeeds because it puts us there and gives us an alarming perspective, of the ordinary human feelings and actions of the people engaged in the worst horror of all. (Szmul observes that “I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour, every minute of human history, you would find no exemplum, no model, no precedent.”) They make occasional protests of detachment from what is happening – “I’ve never seen one good reason for all this fuss about the Jews,” says one of Thomsen’s colleagues, and his friend Boris adds, “Golo, who in Germany didn’t think the Jews needed taking down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous, this is” – but they have no power to stop it, and no interest in doing so anyway. Doll discusses the “need to do something” about 250,000 Poles with his notoriously violent colleague Mobius, and asks if they know what is in store for them. No, says Mobius, they hope they’ll just get dispersed. “But it’s too late for that.”
Again there is bitter humour as Thomsen and a colleague discuss the rationale for killing not just Jewish men, but women and children. “Those babes in arms will grow up and want revenge on the Nazis in about 1963. I suppose the rationale for women under forty-five is that they might be pregnant. And the rationale for the older women is while we’re at it.” So the jokes come hobbled; but no, we don’t expect comedy in a story about Auschwitz. Tragedy, however, comes pre-installed. The challenge for a novelist, whose job is to make things up, is to engage such responses in a new way, and in book which is all told from the point of view of those responsible for the killing. One of the most affecting scenes in The Zone of Interest comes when Szmul unearths from the ground and reads to his Sonder colleagues a testimony from another Jew (“who is gone now”) and which reports a young child challenging the Sonderkommando: “Why, you are a Jew and you lead such dear children to the gas – only in order to live?” But Szmul’s colleagues respond in protests as he reads, repeating the only word that makes any sense here:
Many of the men had tears in their eyes – but they weren’t tears of grief or guilt.
“Stop. She ‘made a very short but fiery speech.’ Like hell she did. Stop.”
“Stop. He lies.”
“Silence would be better than this. Stop.”
“Stop. And don’t put it back in the earth. Destroy it – unread. Stop.”