Full of quiet fury, Amis articulates the unspeakable
The Zone of Interest By Martin Amis Jonathan Cape, 310pp, $32.95 UNDER the unlikeliest of fictional circumstances, Martin Amis has returned to form. His new novel is superb in almost every sense. There are the Nabokovian ravishments of his alliterative, lexically alert, bleakly witty prose. And there is the wise and feeling characterisation of his women and men, individuals for whom thought and action are often yawningly distinct. The historical knowledge he displays, the evident fruit of decades of research, everywhere informs the fiction without drowning it in fact. The Zone of Interest swoops elegantly through the closing jaws of World War II.
The only problem is that his chosen subject matter is unspeakable: as in, beyond the realm
September 20-21, 2014 of language. No poetry after Auschwitz, as Theodor Adorno famously put it. Yet the most incorrigibly articulate of major English novelists has tackled a subject that many believe should be met by sorrowful silence. After several feints, the most direct being Times Arrow (1991), Amis has entered the Nazi death camps.
Those readers curled into a fetal ball at the suggestion may relax: there is no vulgarity of the kind that results from a sharp yet unfeeling intelligence addressing a crime so immense it can never be adequately judged. Amis reveals himself as a subtle diplomat of the human spirit in these pages. He has written an astute book full of controlled fury. It is also an arch comedy of manners that relishes the kitsch of that historical moment. The Zone of Interest doesn’t whistle past the graveyard; it sends a brass band marching through.
The novel opens in 1942 in Monowitz, Poland: the forced labour camp set up as a publicprivate partnership between the SS and IG Farben. The Nazis leased out a mainly Jewish slave labour force to the company, whose Buna Works industrial complex produced rubber and Zyklon-B, the gas that killed those inmates too young, too old or otherwise unfit for work at nearby Birkenau. It is a setting with its own literary association: Italian-Jewish author Primo Levi was a senior chemist at Buna.
But Amis inverts Levi’s direct testimony from within the camps. Instead he writes from the perspective of those who run them: the scientists and doctors, the engineers and logistics experts, the soldiers and sundry staff required to keep a workforce of up to 80,000 labourers alive long enough to perform their tasks. What makes this milieu so riveting is that it is not wholly made up of monsters. There are the usual assortment of psychopaths, of course, but there are also women, children and otherwise sane men trapped in the infernal machinery of the undertaking. Nonetheless it is a society linked by criminal complicity, its speech is cor- rupted by euphemism (the Zone of Interest is what they call the camp) and bureaucratese.
The biggest risk Amis takes is to make all this the backdrop of a love story. Angelus Thomsen is almost a cliche of the splendid blond beasts of Nazi mythology. He’s a tall, handsome womaniser and a scion of the senior ranks of National Socialism. His “uncle Martin” turns out to be Martin Bormann, Hitler’s future deputy.
He is struck by a glimpse of a Teutonic beauty with two young daughters — Hannah Doll, wife of Paul Doll, a notorious drunk and the savage head of Monowitz camp (based partly on Vinzenz Schottle, the real Lagerfuhrer in those years). Thomsen knows that the man known as the Old Boozer is a dangerous enemy to make; nonetheless, he sets out to seduce Hannah.
It is a set-up as kitsch as the mediocre operettas the senior staff attend at local theatres. Yet the real passion and sincere feeling the adulterous couple discover has an important role to play. Their relationship, founded on deceit, is