Dark humour, romance juxtapose horrors of life inside Nazi death camp
MARTIN Amis opens The Zone of Interest with a description of a man watching a woman and her two daughters, all sporting straw hats and bags, as they walk beneath a colonnade of maples on a sunny day. That idyllic scene, with its undercurrent of romance, masks the horror of the location, a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s chilling observation about the “banality of evil” is writ large in the Brooklyn-based, British-born Amis’s new dark, discomfiting novel about a love story of sorts in the starkly unromantic setting of a death camp. The zone of interest of the title is a Nazi euphemism for Auschwitz, here called Kat Zet, which first appeared in Amis’s 1992 novel Time’s Arrow.
It also refers to the zones of interest, or altered reality, that the main characters fabricate to allow themselves to live with their unconscionable acts against Europe’s doomed Jews. Zone has three narrators: Golo Thomsen, a highly connected political officer; Paul Doll, camp commandant; and Szmul, a Sonderkommando — one of the Jews charged with disposing of bodies. Thomsen is a manager working in the forced labour section of the camp, supplying slaves to IG Farben — the real-life producer of the Zyklon B gas used in the killing chambers — and attempting at Kat Zet to make synthetic fuel and rubber to sustain the war effort. Disgusted by the people he has to work with, he also tries to slow the destruction of the Jews. He is a hero, of sorts, in a black comedy full of grotesques. Doll is the quintessential unthinking Nazi, who tells himself he is a manager. “Now you don’t go far in the Protective Custody business if you can’t think on your feet and show a bit of presence of mind... The schedules of the transports I’m being asked to accept next month are outlandish,” he says of his job overseeing the extermination of “undesirables.” At one point, when the widow of a recent camp official returns as an internee, Doll meets with her in custody in what the reader senses will be a move to save her. Instead he jokes “The crew-cut’s most becoming. And is that your phone number?” as he eyes her tattooed arm. Doll’s self-deluded ranting speaks volumes about the men who accepted the role of “managers” of extermination camps, who stood on the railway siding and determined who went right to the gas chambers and who worked themselves to death. Doll even reminds himself “to be kind to the Jew is to be cruel to the German.” Doll describes himself as “completely normal” more than once — just as Adolf Eichmann was declared normal after his eventual arrest. It’s Arendt’s banality of evil reprised. Szmul, part of a sick experiment to make Jews help in the destruction of their brethren, helps to save as many as he can. His narrative gets less space than the others; it’s as if Amis decided the character was needed to show the perversity of the Nazis, but otherwise the “saddest man who ever lived” deserves a modicum of privacy in his turmoil. Thomsen is the observer in the opening passages, watching Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife. He is described as “A great scragger of the womenfolk” and his initial lust for Hannah morphs into love as it becomes clear the Nazis are losing the war and the camps ramp up their “production” before the Allies invade German-held territory. There is black humour among the incredible atrocities Amis writes about, which will raise the question about whether fiction is the best medium through which to view the Holocaust. Yet, in his 14th novel — his best in decades — Amis uses the spectre of love and the black comedy to suggest that maybe there is no credible way to write about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Maybe language is unequal to the task. However you feel about Amis’s approach, The Zone of Interest bolsters Arendt’s view that no matter how politically powerless an individual is under totalitarian rule, there is always a moral choice.
Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.