Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Perfect bound, 309 pp., $26.95
Review by Matthew Miranda
The latest novel from satirist Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest, is ostensibly the story of a love triangle set in Auschwitz. But it’s more than that, and it’s Amis’ remarkable gift to take a subject and setting of such enormity and distill the characters and connections he creates. The end result is an absolutely stunning harvest of the human from the horrendous. This is literature that moves you where you need to be moved.
Over six chapters, The Zone of Interest alternates between three points of view: Obersturmführer Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, a womanizing mid-level Nazi whose status is due exclusively to his relation to an elite-ranking uncle; Paul Doll, a Nazi who oversees the arrival and ultimate fates of Auschwitz’s doomed arrivals while his wife and children grow apart from him; and Sonderkommandoführer Szmul, a Polish Jew whose life has been temporarily spared in exchange for his complicity in deceiving arriving Jews as to their fate and for pillaging and disposing of the bodies afterward.
Thomsen’s philandering is legendary and relentless, until he finally finds a woman he has feelings for—Hannah, Doll’s wife. At first, the attraction seems nothing more than carnal and fleeting; as Borges wrote, “There are those who seek the love of a woman to forget her.” But Thomsen possesses a complexity that reveals itself over the course of the story: a linear lothario early on, it’s soon clear there is hidden depth and breadth to his character. In some ways, he parallels Szmul: both men go along with the monstrous machinery of the camp because it is the only way they see to survive it. Thomsen remarks, “We went along. We went along with, doing all we could to drag our feet…but we went along. There were hundreds of thousands like us, maybe millions like us.” Like many of those millions, Thomsen ends up somewhere very far away from where and who he is.
Doll, despite his implicit involvement in the killings and being literally unable to avoid his surreality—the stench and logistical realities of the camp are his to contend with—shows none of the other main characters’ ambivalence, brushing aside uncertainty with a conviction that, over time, attenuates to desperation and drunkenness: “For I am a normal man with normal needs. I am completely normal. This is what nobody seems to understand. Paul Doll is completely normal.” As much as Thomsen evolves, Doll devolves, eventually losing his grip on inner and outer reality; his discovery of Hannah’s elusiveness and betrayals mirrors the slow realization that the German war effort and the future of the Reich are not at all in sync with what the propaganda posits. There are moments he catches a glimpse of truth, like when he permits one connection between the Nazis and the Jews: “Here…in the cremas, they’re dead. But then so are we, we who obey…” But as soon as such truths claw into his mind’s light, Doll buries them. Amis admits the difficulty in making sense of the why behind the Holocaust; many of us struggle so. Perhaps Doll’s mystery is the only truth he knows.
Szmul is Amis’ most ambitious character and his most remarkable. He is the highest-ranking and longest-tenured sonderkommando, one of the Jews tasked with keeping the Nazi ruse going by lying to Auschwitz’s new arrivals about what awaits them. But survival comes at a steep price: Szmul must witness the darkest synchronicities:
Fairly frequently, in the course of their work, they encounter someone they know. The Sonders see these neighbours, friends, relatives, as they come in, or as they go out, or both. Szmul’s second-in-command once found himself in the shower room calming the fears of his identical twin. Not long ago there was a certain Tadeusz, another good worker, who looked to the end of his belt in the Leichenkeller…and there was his wife; he fainted; but they gave him some schnapps and a length of salami, and 10 minutes later he was back on the job, snipping merrily away.
Surviving so long also makes him conspicuous to Doll, who, after realizing Hanna and Thomsen have feelings for one another, ensnares his prisoner in a cruel extortion. Szmul’s voice is the simplest and strongest in the novel; whereas Doll’s grip on the internal and external worlds deteriorates, Szmul sees each with devastating clarity. Remarking on the state of the Nazis once they realized the war was lost, he observed, “The Sonders have suffered Seelenmord—death of the soul. But the Germans have suffered it too; I know this; it could not possibly be otherwise.” Commenting on his own life, he said, “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.”
Amis’ prose is masterful, and beyond telling the story, reveals the absurdities of control and chaos. There is a 108-word sentence distinguishing the fifteen different types of Nazi police, and there is melodious alliteration, as seen in Doll’s disdain for the sonderkommandos: “They’ll sit spooning up their soup on a stack of Stuke; they’ll wade knee deep through the mephitic meadow whilst munching on a hunk of ham.”
It is conspicuous that in a book as detailed as this (the eight-page afterword lists dozens of reference materials), the name “Hitler” never appears—he is instead alluded to as “the Deliverer,” “the Corporal,” and “the Chief”—and then, as German defeat nears, as more pejorative euphemisms. Is this another of the novel’s parallels? If the man first seen as a hero to some and a menace to others could become a fool and a monster over twelve years, how could the people and the continent he shaped be any less fluid?
That’s how alive The Zone of Interest is. It wakes you when you didn’t know you were asleep. The author weaves the characters’ lives together and spins those threads into the big-picture world like motifs in a symphony, each taking turns in the spotlight and as accompanist, culminating with Szmul’s breathtaking final words:
Although I live in the present…with pathological fixity, I remember everything that has happened to me…To remember an hour would take an hour. To remember a month would take a month. I cannot forget because I cannot forget. And now at the last all these memories will have to be dispersed. There is only one possible outcome, and it is the outcome I want. With this I prove that my life is mine, and mine alone…And, by reason of that, not all of me will die.