Dark hu­mour, ro­mance jux­ta­pose hor­rors of life inside Nazi death camp

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Chris Smith

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.

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