In the afterword of his new novel about the Holocaust, Martin Amis recalls survivor Primo Levi’s answer to the question “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?” Levi, an Italian chemist and writer who left Auschwitz — the setting for The Zone of Interest, Amis’ 23rd book — alive, responded: “Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify.”
A savage satirist who took apart the British working class in his last novel, the hilarious and profane Lionel Asbo, Amis appears to have taken this sentiment to heart. The Zone of Interest — a euphemism for the area around Auschwitz — doesn’t so much try to explain the Holocaust as bear witness to its madness in surprising ways, using wit and grotesque humor as a shield against atrocity.
It’s no protection, of course. The Zone of Interest is in equal measure funny and crushing, with emphasis on how chaos and mass psychosis act on the souls living through it. “No one knows themselves,” one character muses. “Who are you? You don’t know. Then you come to the Zone of Interest, and it tells you who you are.”
Amis has taken on the Holocaust in a roundabout way before, in 1991’s stunning Time’s Arrow, in which a Nazi doctor’s life spools out backward in time. That novel — inexplicably, Amis’ only entry on the Man Booker Prize shortlist — came at the Holocaust sideways, with powerful literary bravado.
In The Zone of Interest, Amis confronts the subject more straightforwardly but no less impressively, attacking the impossible questions of why and how from three different viewpoints.
Angeles “Golo” Thomsen, nephew to Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler’s personal secretary (the Fuhrer, curiously enough, is never mentioned by name in the book), is a high-ranking official at the Buna-Werk factory, charged with making rubber for the war effort. He is the physical German ideal (six foot three, with “cobalt” blue eyes and “frosty white” hair, he describes his “Flemish chute of the nose, the disdainful plat of the mouth, the shapely pugnacity of the chin. ... the thighs solid as hewn masts, the kneecaps square, the calves Michelangelan...”) He is not, however, a true believer, and his disgust at becoming what he calls a “desk murderer” prompts him to consider redemption.
But first, he falls in love. Amid constant death, destruction and a sneaking feeling Germany will not prevail on the eastern front against Russia, Thomsen is drawn to Hannah, the wife of the camp’s commandant, Paul Doll, a cartoonish buffoon painted in broadly comic strokes.
Flummoxed by contradictory commands from above — one demands he increase the productivity of slave labor, another insists he murder the labor force more rapidly — Doll is a drunk and struggling with his sanity, which is deteriorating at an alarming pace. He secretly laments that the only service he is rendering his country is butchering children and the elderly instead of fighting on the battlefield with the regime’s true heroes. At one point he daydreams about gassing an entire German audience (“And how sweet the Aryans smelled!”).
The third narrator, the Jewish prisoner Szmul, has remained alive by virtue of his job. He’s tasked with the numbing, horrifying task of calming inmates on their way to the gas chamber and the gruesome followup of disposing of their remains, which end up in a churning field, “[p]opping, splatting, hissing. ... a vast surface that undulated like a lagoon at the turn of the tide, a surface dotted with geysers that burped and squirted; every now and then divots of turf jumped and somersaulted in the air.” He is less fleshed-out than Thomsen or Doll, necessarily so — even a virtuoso like Amis must struggle to put himself in such tragic shoes.
How do people make sense of institutional madness? How can any sane person negotiate a world in which right and wrong, good and evil, are terms that no longer apply (“There are only positive outcomes and negative outcomes”)?
Questions keep even the foolish Paul Doll awake at night. “If what we’re doing is so good, why does it smell so lancingly bad? On the ramp at night, why do we feel the ungainsayable need to get so brutishly drunk? ... Why do we turn the snow brown? Why do we do that? Make the snow look like the s--- of angels.”
Such horrors may seem more safely viewed through a humorous lens, but Amis doesn’t let that distance mask the unthinkable. His wit may flourish, but every breath Szmul takes drags us back to reality and makes us wonder: How can a person adapt to such hellish circumstances? Could love actually flower in such a place? Is bearing witness a worthy goal?
Those are the sorts of questions Amis takes aim at in this pulverizing novel about identity and humanity. “Under National Socialism you looked in the mirror and saw your soul,” Thomsen says grimly. “Who somebody really was. That was the zone of interest.”
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
Who: Martin Amis
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; tickets required and available with purchase of “The Zone of Interest” at Books & Books locations in the Gables, Miami Beach and Bal Harbour; bring a guest for $10.
Info: booksandbooks.com, 305-442-4408