Book: The Zone of Interest
Author: Martin Amis
Publisher: Random House
Price: Rs 2,052
No story has been recounted as obsessively as the Holocaust’s. In history and in fiction, in memoir and in biography, it has been told and retold, as if to reiterate never again, never again. The gas chambers of Auschwitz, the piles of clothes and spectacles left behind by the dead, the faces of those going to their deaths are artefacts of a collective memory by now. But one of the lasting perversities of the Holocaust is that it implicates the reader as well. To read Holocaust fiction in the 21st century is to feel something more complicated than the first wash of horror; it is to know a troubling, fetishistic pleasure in revisiting a grisly story. To break these habits of response, an author writing about the Holocaust must inevitably struggle with how to make it new. That is perhaps what Martin Amis tries to do in The Zone of Interest.
Which might explain why the central premise of Amis’s novel has qualities of the absurd: a romance in Auschwitz. Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, a young Nazi official blessed with Teutonic good looks, falls in love with the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll, also blessed with Teutonic good looks. As the commandant, drolly named Paul Doll, begins to suspect an affair, he descends into a spiral of madness, misogyny and alcoholism. A search for a missing communist and Germany’s changing fortunes in the war are the other driving forces of the plot. Three narrators tell the story between them — Thomsen, Paul Doll and Szmul, a member of the Sonderkommando, the special squad of prisoners tasked with clearing the dead.
Auschwitz, never named in the book, becomes an allegorical space, a kind of theatre for the absurd. It is the zone of interest, the area cordoned off by the Nazis for the execution of the final solution. But the zone of interest is also Hannah, the object of Thomsen’s desire, lit up by his longing gaze. The zone of interest is also “who somebody really was”, the self thrown into sharp relief in the cold, harsh light of National Socialism. Except, this fine allegorical vision does not hold for long. The historical reality of the camp bears down on it. The wisecracks cannot ward off the stench of death, the choir of violins cannot drown out the quavering screams of the doomed.
This is a novel that wavers between satire and sentimentality, as the cool detachment of its protagonist, Thomsen, is broken by his falling in love with Hannah. It is also a curiously old-fashioned novel, drawing on British comedy sketch traditions of the snorting, bullet-headed Prussian and an Anglophone hero with public school humour. Indeed, its moral compass seems to be determined by this quaint distinction.
For instance, language is indictment in the novel, but what exactly is it indicting? Paul Doll’s Nazism is revealed in his use of digits instead of words, the sharp 1s and 1/2s that interrupt the text, and in his cataloguing of women’s bodies, no different from his accounting of dead Jewish bodies. Sometimes, he uses extravagant phrases like “the first lambent beams of the morning” — coy references to the romantic flights of fancy that sustained Nazism. But mostly, Doll is meant to be ridiculous because he is parodically German. The frequent lapses into German, verbal tics like nicht and ne seem to be crimes in themselves. Thomsen, in contrast, is not guilty of being excessively German. As if by extension, he is not guilty of bad poetry either. He writes more literary prose and quotes WH Auden. Eventually, he also learns English. If language is morality in the novel, it boils down to this: English good, German bad.
The lampooning works as long as the satire lasts. But when the novel takes on a more serious tenor, it sounds rather laddish. In the end, Amis cannot resist long, earnest passages on the pity of war, the insanity of the Holocaust, the stripping of the human soul. But we’ve heard all of it before, in the voices of various writers. To the satiated, jaundiced modern reader, alas, he does not make it new.