Review: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis book cover
The Zone of Interest (2014) is Martin Amis’s second novel to tackle the Holocaust. His first, Time’s Arrow, was experimental fiction, but here the story is rooted firmly in the grim reality of Auschwitz; weaving together the lives of a small handful of characters, the novel is a very human look at the day-to-day life of an extermination camp. Three first-person narrators unfurl the story: Angelus ‘Golo’ Thompson (a womaniser and less than committed Nazi), Paul Doll (the largely inept camp Commandant, who worries more about the financial implications of mass murder than his marriage), and Szmul (a conflicted Jewish prisoner who, as a Sonderkommando, helps to dispose of bodies from the gas chambers – a true witness). The plot, if there is one, is driven by a love triangle between Golo and Paul Doll’s wife, Hannah. But this is somewhat secondary to the reflections of the three characters on their situation. Szmul is perhaps the most ponderous and thoughtful of the voices, but between them they paint a disturbing picture of the madness that pervaded the time and place. This is mass murder, normalised and for profit.

Amis, as he notes himself in the essay that follows his novel, has a preoccupation with the Holocaust – perhaps, as W. G. Sebald says, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else”. Here, his fictional concentration camp is used in a number of ways to help him achieve a real range of depth in the novel as it twists between very ordinary, mundane concerns, and the cataclysmic duty of mass-extermination. While the industrial scale of murder carried out between the novel’s pages, all overseen by only half-cognizant bureaucrats, is a truly chilling picture of what human beings are capable, it is the individual voices of the three narrators against which the atrocities are off-set that create the truly interesting dynamic. All three are complicit in the acts that take place in the camp, and each brings to the story different concerns, from Doll’s blustering bureaucratic fears about the cost of extermination and how this detracts from the war effort, to Szmul’s most resonant laments about the (human) cost of extermination. For each, the camp acts as a mirror that allows them to see more clearly: “you come to the Zone of Interest and it tells you who you are.”

Undoubtedly, Amis’s fiction has become increasingly preoccupied with the Big Issues, possibly going back to Einstein’s Monsters, his 1987 collection of short stories on nuclear armament. The Zone of Interest is his second novel to deal with the Holocaust, and he’s written about the Gulag too, in Koba the Dread. For a large part of the twenty-first century, however, Amis’s chief concern has been with the most modern Big Issue: 9/11 and radical Islam. In The Second Plane – a collection of essays and short pieces on the topic – Amis writes of his inability to find a suitable response in fiction to 9/11, and for an author who has approached the grimmest of topics, this is surprising. Since The Second Plane was published in 2008, Amis has released three novels: The Pregnant Widow (2010), Lionel Asbo (2012), and The Zone of Interest (2014). Each has felt like the retracing of old themes for Amis – sexual politics, satire on the modern condition played for humour, and now the seriousness of Big Events seen through Amis’s unique lens. It is almost as if, having stalled on the most prescient event of the twenty-first century, Amis has regressed to well-trodden, and more familiar topics. Following that logic, it would be no surprise to see his next novel dealing with the very particular anxieties of the writer and his craft ala The Information – but that is a rather flippant suggestion. If Amis is keen on dealing with the Big Issues, one can’t help but feel he would be best off setting aside all the history books and immersing himself in the present, allowing his instinct to guide his writing. Authors will write about the Holocaust for years to come – another tome to the collection can add very little on its own – but for Amis to be engaged in the present and turn his remarkable literary talent to addressing the world as it lives around him would be of immense value.

Reading The Zone of Interest, it is clear that Amis has read extensively on his topic – almost to the point of weighing the prose down with the density of fact over the freedom of fiction – but even were this not evident from the novel’s text, the book is concluded with a seven-page essay called “Acknowledgments and Afterword: ‘That Which Happened’”, which, through a dizzying number of references, impresses upon the reader the remarkable amount of research Amis has done.m While the literary shadow of Nabokov remains over Amis’s prose, it is the historians’ sentiments that creep into paragraph after paragraph of the novel, and to conclude said novel with an essay feels somehow heavy handed. The level of research is remarkable, but there is a fine line between historical exactness and overburdening a piece of fiction.

A lot of reviews have lauded the dark humour of The Zone of Interest, and the humour is often very subtle, or, arguably, non-existent. Certainly, it is a different type of humour from much of Amis’s writing, and, more generally, The Zone of Interest seems to be one of the straightest of Amis’s novels. Where there is humour, it is largely underpinned by the moral disgust one must feel at the events that took place in the concentration camps, and thus the prose has a weightiness not always felt in Amis’s writing, particularly his humour. Much of the satire is directed at the language of bureaucracy, even if here the bureaucracy is that of the National Socialists and their killing machine. Doll, in particular, is an excellent comic creation: a very familiar, self-aggrandising and rather pompous middle manager, but in the most unfamiliar situation possible. Where Doll and even Golo are humorous, Szmul brings the reader closest to the reality of the situation that all three exist in. He is the reminder that beneath any laughter, bitter or otherwise, every word in The Zone of Interest portrays, in essence, the worst place on Earth.

Although The Zone of Interest feels like something different from Amis’s normal satiric style, you still feel his presence, lurking behind every sentence, slipping words into the mouths of his three narrators whenever he cannot contain the desire to include one of his literary flourishes. However, The Zone of Interest is remarkable for an Amis book in featuring barely one truly engaging sentence. There is a familiar arrogance to the writing though. For example, the occasional German word is dropped into the dialogue, which, in honesty, becomes quite irritating. In true Amisian style, this use of German frequently revolves around sex - vulgarisms dropped in for humorous effect (“the brambles of her Busch ... the great oscillating hemispheres of her Arsch”)

The Zone of Interest is a realist, historical novel, which displays few of Amis’s familiar stylistic tropes – the linguistic flourishes are severley dampened, the humour is subtle and, above all, there is a straight-faced seriousness to the whole business. Certainly there are farcical characters / riffs, but here Amis uncurls his lip, normally so sneeringly amused, and instead furrows his brow in shared contemplation of an event in the collective history of humanity that still baffles in its scale and inhumanity. It’s refreshing to see that Amis still has new tricks in his locker, but somehow The Zone of Interest is not as engaging as much of his fiction, despite finding new depths. If the reader is left with one message, it is that words are impotent in the face of atrocities like the Holocaust – they cannot carry us to a place of understanding. When Szmul says that he “need[s] something more than words,” he is not the only one.

I read this about six months ago and it's really difficult to write a review after such a long period - at the time I really didn't get on with the book, but looking back now I'm having my doubts. Teach me to get on with reviews!


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2 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Two bonus comment from me on this - the first is a little mischievous but in the interview below, Amis claimed he had two titles in mind for this book: one that would do, and one that he'd have to earn one. The Zone of Interest was the one to settle for, make of that whatever you like.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jun/03/martin-amis-brooklyn-lionel-asbo-interview

Matthew Selwyn said...

Also, thoughts on the unapproachability of 9/11 in fiction. This is more of a colourful idea, than necessarily the most likely to be behind Amis's own inability to find a suitable response:

9/11 is laden symbolism, and is in its way already in the artistic sphere (we're talking high-level here - on the basic level it was a horrific example of mass-murder, although when is mass-murder not horrific?). That makes it harder to respond to for the artist. The holocaust is the mechanisation of death. It's the opposite of symbolic or artistic so there is room for art to respond, add to, and explain. 9/11 was such a potent metaphor (the towers symbolising so much about America and capitalism) that it gives art nowhere to go. Any response pales in comparison to the original act.