Richard Cawthorne finds history repeating itself in Martin Amis’ haunting new Holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest.
Can the Holocaust ever be a suitable subject for comedy? A love story? Should it be? Some argue it is a way of confronting what happened. Others, for whom those events can never be forgiven, are appalled at the idea of trivialising such a massive blot on history.
Martin Amis has always been a controversial writer. His new work, The Zone of Interest, is certain to maintain the momentum.
Notoriously taciturn, Amis has avoided questions about whether this is a comedy or a love story, although it has been labelled both; critics seem unsure about where to place it in the vast canon of works on the Shoah and have settled for that.
All this plays into Amis’ hands. By choosing to return to the concentration camps (he was here before in the equally-unsettling 1991 novel Time’s Arrow), he guarantees an audience.
The larger point is whether by confronting his subject at this oblique angle he will be judged to have misread fatally the effect on a large proportion of his readers.
The Zone of the title is, of course, the Kat Zet, or Konzentrationslager, in this case the adjunct of Auschwitz where the industrial corporation I G Farben conducted experiments designed to lead to the manufacture of synthetic rubber and fuel to contribute to the Nazi war effort.
In this endeavour, the company used slave labour provided from the camp, commanded by one Paul Doll. Doll is one of three narrators who conduct readers in turn through the unfolding events. Another is Angelus Thomsen, whom Amis sets up as the hero, for want of a better word.
The third is the wretched Sonderkommandofuhrer Szmul Zachariasz, leader of one of the teams of prisoners whose job it was to clear out the gas chambers after their work was done.
Thus we have three versions of what is happening from different standpoints – by no means an unusual device but one which Amis conducts with flair. And yet… for all the clever use of language, Amis falls into the trap of caricature. Kommandant Doll is a gross figure, given to heavy drinking and, at least at first, to delusions of his own grandeur. It is his antics that provide the ‘comedy’.
Thomsen, protected from all consequences by the fact he is the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, is portrayed as the archetypal Nazi; tall, fair and handsome. Zachariasz, whose sad reflections provide the real meat of the book, is the inevitable lost soul whose existence parodies what is going around him.
Another caricature is Ilse Grese, commander of the women’s camp, who is, we are told by Doll, ‘admirably firm with recalcitrant females’.
Against a background of mass slaughter, the characters play out their roles, at first triumphantly as the Western Front falls to the Wehrmacht and the invasion of Russia is launched; later in cringing disbelief as the reality of defeat at Stalingrad sinks in. Thomsen, whose job is never defined precisely, is in pursuit of Doll’s wife, Hannah, which provides the love-story element of the book. Doll obsesses about the best way to deal with so many bodies and the arrival of the transports.
Zachariasz exists in his own dreadful enclosed world.
His eyes, we are told, are ‘gone, dead, defunct, extinct’, but his exchanges with Doll and his own thoughts are one of the abiding features of the book. Comedy? Love story? Amis’ novel could be, if you accept the Nazis were buffoons.
But they weren’t.
While these people in their zones of interest were drinking their cognacs and eating oysters in gilded salons, people outside were being systematically murdered.
There is a clash of styles here that Amis never satisfactorily deals with, and nothing much new, but worth reading nevertheless.