Full of quiet fury, Amis ar­tic­u­lates the un­speak­able

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

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