Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Zone of Interest

That the new Martin Amis novel, The Zone of Interest, is set in a World War II German concentration camp likely reduces the size of the book’s potential audience because many readers are simply not willing to peer very closely into that degree of darkness and depravity.  In fact, publishers in France and Germany have been reluctant to even take on the book – although, finally, a small French publisher has decided to release it in late 2015.  (The Germans apparently believe that the novel places some of the Nazi administrators in too positive a light.)

It is more than the subject matter, however, that will make it difficult for some readers to finish the novel, it is also the general approach that Amis takes in telling his story – he uses satire and, of all things, humor, to portray how a culture as sophisticated and “civilized” as Germany’s allowed something like the Holocaust happen.  Throw in a somewhat twisted love story, and you have the makings of an off-putting novel, one to which some will be reluctant to give a chance.

This, for instance, is typical of the humor Amis sometimes uses in the novel’s dialogue. In conversation with another officer, one camp officer justifies inclusion of Jewish women and children in the overall slaughter this way:

“Those babes in arms will grow up and want revenge on the Nazis in about 1963. I suppose the rationale for the women under forty-five is that they might be pregnant. And the rationale for the older women is while we’re at it.”

Martin Amis
Amis uses three very different narrators in The Zone of Interest: Golo Thompsen, Paul Doll, and a man called Szmul.  Thompsen, a German officer and the nephew of Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, plays a minor role in the camp’s day-to-day activities.  Doll is the camp’s mentally unstable commandant who is slowly breaking under pressure from Berlin to dispose of the camp’s inmates at what seems to him an impossible rate.  Szmul is one of Doll’s Jewish inmates, a man who has stayed alive only by working hard at “salvaging” the valuables of those designated for extermination – even down to the gold in their teeth and the hair on their heads. 

The Zone of Interest is part love story, part horror novel.  One of the most telling aspects of the effectiveness of Martin Amis’s approach is that, as I read the story, I was more shocked by the casualness with which the Nazis killed than by the actual details of what went on inside the camp.  I was appalled by the thought that the whole thing, for camp administrators, became more of an engineering problem than a realization that they were murdering human beings.  It was all about the process: how to dispose of the leftover bodies of thousands upon thousands of people, and how to kill more of them in the most efficient manner possible.  It was all about processing “material.”

The Zone of Interest is not a novel I will soon forget.

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