Book review – The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
This is a difficult book for me to review. Firstly, I am a hopeless Amis groupie. I can think of no single celebrity in literature (or elsewhere) who would similarly reduce me to as much of a stammering idiot were I to find myself in his or her presence. I have read Amis for 35 years years. From the towering London Fields and The Information, to the shriekingly funny Money and The Pregnant Widow, and even to the incomprehensibly awful Yellow Dog and the failed experimental Time’s Arrow, and to the deeply moving Experience (which rendered all other memoirs pallid by comparison). So I should not really review him – my bias disqualifies me.
Secondly, the Holocaust. There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I devoured every Holocaust book I could lay my hands on, both fiction and non-fiction. The horror of it never diminished, and the answers to the question of how a people could so industrialise hate and cruelty, even in war, were never provided. I have steered of the subject ever since, it it too hard to forage any further. Reading about the Holocaust allows one to gain knowledge, but what happened remains impenetrable.
But The Zone of Interest takes the reader there, directly into the searing center of it, a the focal point of operations of a large concentration camp. It is told via a number of perspectives, mostly Nazis (the camp Kommandant, Gestapo, SS, various German camp, army and government officials). There is one Jewish perspective, a ‘Sonder’ (a sort of senior inmate who is granted a slightly longer life by assisting in the killing).
Amis’s dark brilliance in this book is is that the near-indescribable machinery of death and torture and starvation and rape and anesthetic-less medical experiments and flogging posts are dropped jauntily into dialogue between Nazis and their colleagues and wives and lovers. They are never described in narrative, always simply as part of dinner conversations or internal first person musings over a brandy and cigars, all without a shred of awareness or guilt – how much cement for this, how many bullets for that, the length of the steel tip at the end of the whip, the funny old Jewish lady who complained that there was no dining car on the train transport (just prior to being clubbed to death), the little boy with the club foot who could not walk properly when his was forced to take of his prosthesis, the annoying cost of feeding and keeping Jews alive for 1 month to mine coal in sub zero temperatures before letting them die, the genius of stepping up slave labour from ‘double time‘ to ‘triple time‘ work, the efficiencies of the Punishment Police, the 5 year old girl who clings to the Kommandant’s leg as she is separated from her mother to go the gas chamber. These anecdotes, embedded in conversations juxtaposed with other comments about the fine chicken preparation on the table or extra-marital flirtations or party politics create a terrible cognitive dissonance for the reader. It could not possibly have happened this way. This sort of depravity was surely accompanied by at least a modicum of doubt and guilt and distaste.
Not a bit of it. The conversations and dialogue expose the stunning success of the mad racial scientists of Nazism, who had created the fact of Jews (and others – Slavs, Catholics, gypsies, communists, homosexuals) as insects, as Untermenschen – a perception of such hermetic perfection that no one ever questioned the right of a German to torture or kill for pleasure or profit or whatever reason was deemed fit. So a functionary will discuss the upcoming coming Christmas concert at the camp Officer’s Club in the same breath as complaining about the annoying smell emanating from the open sores of the women in the Women’s block, or the outrageous slothfulness of Jews dragging other dead Jews to the crematoria too slowly.
There is a plot – a love story between the camp Kommandant’s wife and a communist she knew in the thirties, and the reaction of of her drunken cuckold husband. But it is overshadowed by the awful everyday concentration camp picture that is so realistically painted by Amis – blood soaked and putrid and amoral and bestial, with the cries of the tortured and dying echoing behind every banal conversation on every page.
This is not for the faint hearted, but it is, in its terrible way, another work of Amis genius