In the afterword to his latest novel, “The Zone of Interest,” Martin Amis confronts the persistent question of why the German people, “the most highly educated nation the earth had ever seen,” were gripped by such an irrational murderous frenzy, aimed primarily against the Jews. He cites the story told by the Italian writer, memoirist and probable suicide Primo Levi, who recounted how, upon his arrival at Auschwitz, he broke off a bit of icicle to relieve his thirst. It was snatched away by a guard. “Why?” Levi asked. “Here there is no why,” he was informed.
With no satisfactory explanation possible or even, Amis theologically suggests, permissible, he seeks instead to grapple with “that which happened,” in the bitterly restrained locution of the Romanian-born poet and suicide Paul Celan (whose best-known poem, “Death Fugue,” resonates throughout the book and to whose memory, along with Levi’s, the novel is partly dedicated). But even the question of what happened is so daunting that any writer, including one as dexterous and driven as Amis, needs to find a way in.
An earlier Holocaust-centered novel by Amis, “Time’s Arrow” (1991), is launched by scrolling out the life story of a Nazi doctor in reverse, from old age backward. Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, still beset by the subject, Amis ventures again into that grim territory. This time he enters through “the zone of interest,” an actual euphemism, in a genocidal operation rife with euphemisms, for the area surrounding Auschwitz. For Amis, though, “the zone of interest” encloses not only the darkest secrets of the Nazi genocide but also those of human nature. As the novel’s protagonist, Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, observes toward the end of the book, “Under National Socialism you looked in the mirror and saw your soul. . . . Who somebody really was. That was the zone of interest.”
The idea of acquiring self-
understanding from an extreme situation is also invoked in the form of a parable early in the novel, essentially setting the agenda for what follows. In his first appearance, another central character, Szmul, tells the story of a king who orders his wizard to fashion a magic mirror that “showed you your soul . . . who you really were.” No one could look into it without turning away. “I find that the KZ is that mirror,” Szmul says of Auschwitz. (KZ or Kat Zet — short for “Konzentrationslager,” or concentration camp — is Amis’s term for Auschwitz here and in “Time’s Arrow.”) “The KZ is that mirror but with one difference. You can’t turn away.”
Given this mandate — the quest for self-knowledge under the aspect of Auschwitz — it seems fair to expect some significant insights to emerge as the work unfolds. The story, set mostly in the KZ beginning in 1942, progresses in chronological sections narrated by the three main characters, who can loosely be classified, in Holocaust terminology, as collaborator, perpetrator and victim.
The collaborator, Thomsen, nephew of Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, is physically the Aryan ideal. He is a high official at the Buna-Werke complex in what was known as Auschwitz III. Financed by the chemical conglomerate IG Farben (producer of Zyklon B for the gas chambers), it used Jewish slave labor to manufacture synthetic rubber and fuel for the war effort. Thomsen is in love with Hannah, the wife of the perpetrator — camp commandant Paul Doll, a drunkard and buffoon who provides the second narrative voice.
The third, and always the most compressed, is the voice of the victim, the Jewish inmate Szmul, the head Sonderkommando in charge of processing transports of living Jews upon arrival at the camp and their dead bodies after the gassing.
What we learn about people caught up in a genocide of such magnitude is that they can sink to bestial depths in order to survive but that they also are capable of redemptive acts. Thomsen, the aristocratic collaborator, might be offended by the sight of IG Farben executives “daintily picking their way past the bodies of the wounded, the unconscious, and the dead.” But he will recognize by the end that he, too, had slid from bystander to collaborator to “writing-table perpetrator — a desk murderer,” and he will seek a measure of atonement by conspiring to sabotage the Buna enterprise. Even the certified perpetrator, Doll, expresses his qualms as events mount, and in a final statement before his execution admits that he had “sinned gravely against humanity.” The ethical ambiguity of Szmul’s role as Sonderkommando — a “gray zone,” as Primo Levi described it, victim verging on perpetrator — is expiated to a degree by an act of self-sacrifice.
The reflections these souls cast in the mirror that Amis holds up are horrifying but not particularly new or enlightening. Amis is a wizard possessing the ambition to take on weighty themes, but he is above all a word wizard. “The Zone of Interest” is a novel of written testimonies. The least original is Szmul’s, in which Amis is uncharacteristically cautious and deferential, as if treading on sacred ground. More complex and provocative, and therefore more effective, is Thomsen’s; in his reserve and sophisticated detachment, he comes across almost like Amis’s fellow upper-class Brits. The most illuminating is that of the commandant, Doll, a masterful comic performance, high and low, complete with pants falling down and black eyes courtesy of his Valkyrie wife — Nabokovian laughter in the dark that sheds light and clarifies. “It isn’t my style at all,” Doll comments, struck by his own lavish wordplay. It isn’t, of course; it’s signature Amis at his most inventive, and it is precisely through such inspired and irreverent fluency that his dead-serious purpose is realized.
Reich is the author of the novel “My Holocaust,” which will come out in French translation next month. Her latest novel, “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins,” has been recently released in paperback.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST
By Martin Amis
Knopf. 306 pp. $26.95