The Hilarity of Evil

By Morten Høi JensenNovember 18, 2014

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

THE TITLE OF MARTIN AMIS’S new novel, The Zone of Interest, refers to the area of about 40 kilometers that surrounded Auschwitz, concealing its horrors from the outside world. Some 7,000 members of the SS lived and worked in this zone (the German word is Interessengebiet) in the five years of the camp’s existence, effectively and routinely facilitating the transport of about 1.3 million people, of whom only 125,000 survived the end of the war. Perversely, as the historian Saul Friedländer tells us in The Years of Extermination, life there was “definitely not unpleasant” for the SS. They enjoyed tolerable living standards, decent food, and a variety of musical and theatrical performances to pass the time. They were even allowed vacation leave and extended visits from family and friends.

In The Zone of Interest, Amis has attempted to give shape to this aspect of the Holocaust — to the life that thrived in preposterous proximity to so much death and dying. In his novel, children worry about the well-being of their pets, young officers go chasing after girls, and housekeepers are sent into town to do the shopping. Meanwhile, trainload after trainload of Jewish inmates arrives (sometimes as many as 8,000 a week), only to be gassed, enslaved, starved, or beaten. They are turned against each other, experimented upon, and reduced to a primitive state of animal survival. As one of the SS officers asks, “What don’t we do to them?”

And yet, strangely, I am more horrified writing these details now than I was when I encountered them in Amis’s novel. The opinion that The Zone of Interest is “an attempt to grapple with the horrors of the concentration camps,” as a Guardian review put it, not to mention the unwillingness of publishers in France and Germany even to publish the book, is altogether lost on me. So are its rave reviews, its overnight ascendance into the highest echelons of the Amis canon. Uncharacteristically — for a Martin Amis novel — a chorus of praise has heralded its arrival, proclaiming it brilliant, devastating, audacious. In the Literary Review, Mark Lawson celebrates Amis’s “imaginative reanimation,” while NPR’s Alan Cheuse goes so far as to call it “the triumph of [Amis’s] career.”

But its only triumph, if you can call it that, is to render the highly efficient and carefully orchestrated extermination of millions of people almost entirely digestible. The weight, the sheer mass, of Nazi Germany’s murderous enterprise simply does not impress itself on this novel. I don’t say that lightly, in part because I am an intermittently noisy Amis fan, but also because being unmoved by a 300-page novel about the Holocaust is a rather dismal experience I could have done without.

The Zone of Interest is primarily a love story, and a comedy of errors in parts. It follows the fates of its three narrators — Kommandant Paul Doll, Obersturmführer Golo Thomsen, and the enigmatic Sonderkommandofuhrer Szmul (one of the team of Jews charged with handling the inmates and their possessions from their undressing right through death) — from August 1942 until April 30, 1943. At the outset, the handsome young Golo Thomsen (his “arctic eyes a cobalt blue”), who heads the Buna-Werke but seems mostly concerned with getting laid, has experienced love at first sight. The object of his affection is the beautiful Hannah Dollthe Kommandant’s wife. “It was like love,” Golo tells Boris Eltz, his childhood friend and Waffen-SS colleague. “A feeling of inevitability. You know. Like the birth of a long and wonderful romance.” And yet his initial intentions are not quite romantic; as he watches Hannah’s broad, full body bending over to retrieve a pack of Davidoff cigarettes in her garden, he says to himself: “This would be a big fuck. A big fuck: that was what I said to myself.”

Standing in the way of his conquest, of course, is the hapless, overworked, and overindulgent Paul Doll, who, as the novel opens, must shoulder the burden of Berlin’s decision to dramatically expand the murderous campaign against the Jews. A stickler for numbers and efficiency (“I like numbers”), Paul Doll just wants things to run as smoothly as possible. “Why isn’t it always like this?” he asks when a trainload of only 100 new inmates arrives without fuss. “A comfortable journey followed by a friendly and dignified reception. […] And how civilised the KL looked in the thickening glow of dusk, and how richly the birches glistened.”

Yet nothing ever goes according to plan, and the bumbling Paul Doll — “the Old Boozer” — is forever dealing with some new mishap or failure. There are inmates to welcome, bodies to dispose of, an estranged wife to woo, young daughters to raise, a new camp to build, and hundreds of incompetent employees to rely on:

I foresee no end of complication and expense in the proposed construction of KL3. Where are the materials? Will Dobler release matching funds? No one is interested in difficulties, no one is interested in “the objective conditions.” The schedules of the transports I’m being asked to accept next month are outlandish. And, as if I didn’t have “enough on my plate,” who should telephone, at midnight, but Horst Blobel in Berlin. The instruction he adumbrated made my flesh go hot and cold. Did I hear him aright? I cannot possibly carry out such an order whilst Hannah remains in the KL. […] This is going to be an absolute nightmare.

And so the reader is subjected to a series of running gags about the woes of poor Paul Doll. In particular, Amis finds much absurdist fun in the challenge presented by the disposal of bodies. Early on, when a new train rolls in and the inmates disembark without a fight, a lorry of corpses suddenly approaches from the opposite direction and skids to a halt, spilling several bodies onto the track. ‘“Not just any old corpses either,” Boris tells Golo. “Starveling corpses. Covered in shit, and filth, and rags, and gore, and wounds, and boils. Smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses. […] Hardly the height of sophistication.”’

This farcical routine is like something out of Fawlty Towers — if Basil Fawlty was the head of a concentration camp and not a provincial English hotel. You can almost see (and hear) John Cleese in full Nazi regalia being informed that they have now even tried blowing up the bodies:

“Tried blowing them up to achieve what?”
“You know, get rid of them that way. It didn’t work, Kommandant.”
“Well I could’ve told him that before he started. Since when does blowing things up make them disappear?”
“That’s what I thought once they’d tried. It went everywhere. There were bits hanging from the trees.”
“What did you do?” asked Erkel.
“We got the bits we could reach. On the lower branches.”
“What about the upper bits?” asked Stroop.
“We just left them there,” said Prufer.

Whether or not you find this sort of thing funny depends on your appetite for the morbid, I suppose, but as a novelistic approach to the Holocaust I wonder about its merits. (Does it really “grapple with the horrors”?) I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t conceivably write a comedy about Auschwitz without trivializing what happened there, only that it requires a different sort of comedy — Bernhard’s or Beckett’s, perhaps, or the unreality of Kafka. Martin Amis’s very English brand of satire, which has no equal in novels like Money or London Fields, only distances and distorts in The Zone of Interest. It also feels recycled, and Paul Doll in particular is like a composite sketch of an Amis character — the caricature of a caricature. (Like so many of Amis’s characters, he too has a “wall-eyed hangover.”) In the hyperbolic, supercharged worlds of Money or London Fields, these caricatures, with their Dickensian gusto, are made real, are validated, by the world around them, but this is not — this cannot — be the case in the world of The Zone of Interest, which Amis has faithfully reconstructed with great care and detail, and which therefore cannot be said to be an exaggeration. True, he takes certain liberties with place names, but there is no doubting the gravity with which he has set about ensuring the fidelity of the novel’s historical record. And just in case, there’s an eight-page supplementary essay, “That Which Happened,” in which Amis lists the dozens of books he researched, and in which he somberly claims to have “adhere[d] to that which happened, in all its horror, its desolation, and its bloody-minded opacity.”

But why, then, is Nazism ridiculed in this novel rather than confronted? It is an object of serial bad jokes. Take Amis’s misguided decision to litter the speech of his characters with the odd splash of German (sans the umlauts, oddly enough). Here is Paul Doll describing his wife: “From Kehle to Oberschenkel her body seemed to be coated in icing sugar, and I could clearly see the outlines of her Brusten, the concavity of her Bauchnabel, and the triangle of her Geschlechtsorgane […].” And here is Paul Doll musing on women’s breasts:

Biggish Titte, such as those belonging to my wife, can be described as “beautiful,” smallish Titte, like Waltraut’s and Xondra’s, can be characterised as “pretty,” and Titte of the middlish persuasion can be designated aswhat? “Prettiful” Titte? Such are Alisz’s Titte. “Prettiful.” And her Brustwarten are excitingly dark.

So the novel takes a schoolboyish delight in the realization that anatomical words sound funny in German. Combined with the otherwise arch-British banter of Golo and Boris, who are always saying things like “All a bit gauche and provincial, don’t you think?” and, “Vile morning, I’m afraid. Are we off then, Sturmbannfuhrer?,” it produces a very tiresome, very jarring Anglo-German mulch.

On the whole, Amis’s prose, usually so bracing and inventive, crumbles in its Nabokovian reaches and lurches. Someone’s eyes are described as being “exophthalmic with all they knew” (whatever that means), Berlin is said to suffer from “halitosis,” and the smell in one of the cell blocks is described as follows:

it wasn’t the outright putrefaction of the meadow and the pyre, nor was it the smell diffused by the smokestacks (that of cardboard wet with rot, moreover reminding you, with its trace of charr, that human beings evolved from fish). No, it was the apologetic funk of hungerthe acids and gases of thwarted digestion, with a urinous undertang.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. It’s very stylish, but what is it saying really? That it wasn’t the smell of burning flesh that struck him but the smell of shit and piss? In his earlier novels Amis came up with ingenious ways of defamiliarizing the world, of describing things as if they were being perceived for the first time, to paraphrase Viktor Shklovsky. When Golo writes to Hannah that he is “perpetually harassed by first principles, like a child or a neurotic, or like a trite poet in an ingenious novelette. But this is the state of mind of the artist, I’m sure: the diametrical opposite of what we call taking things for granted,” he is more or less voicing his author’s stylistic credo, which also appears in The Information: “This is what an artist has to be: harassed to the point of insanity or stupefaction by first principles.” But the visionary style of his earlier novels is nowhere to be seen in The Zone of Interest. Corpses spilling onto the train tracks are likened to “a crew of ghosts being sick over a ship’s side,” which is a funny image, but one more appropriate to an episode of Scooby-Doo than Auschwitz. It is an annulling metaphor; it subdues the horror of what it is describing.

The Zone of Interest is a novel desperately at odds with itself. It wants to be a satire in the classic Amis mold, but it also wants to bear witness, so to speak, to the documentary record on which it has been reared. Hence Szmul, the only character in whom one senses any real anguish and despair, and who says, hauntingly, “that if you knew every day, every hour, every minute of human history, you would find no exemplum, no model, no precedent.” But Amis too easily falls into the historical novelist’s fallacy: the overindulgence of information. Having read all those books listed in the acknowledgments section, he cannot help scattering his notes throughout the novel (a little Gitta Sereny here, a little Ian Kershaw there …). Thus we are parenthetically told that The Stormer was “an illiterate hate-sheet run by Julius Streicher, the child-molesting Gauleiter of Franconia”; helpfully informed that “November 9, 1923, saw the ridiculous debacle of the Pub Putsch in Bavaria. On that date […]”; and, in a moment of total narrative abandon, that “Mobius was originally a penpusher at the HQ of the Secret State Police, the Gestapanot to be confused with the Gestapo (the actual Secret State Police), or the Sipo (the Security Police), or the Cripo (the Criminal Police), or the Orpo (the Order Police), or the Schupo (the Protection Police), or the Teno (the Auxiliary Police) […].”

And so on for another half a paragraph. We get it; in his research, Amis has come across these acronyms and rightly found them to be very funny. But why should Golo, too, find it funny and point it out to us? This paragraph, and the many other instances of authorial intrusion like it, is only there to give Amis a chance to indulge his research. It gives the impression that he is uncertain about inhabiting not only Golo’s mind, but the entire inferno of the Endlösung. It’s a telltale sign that Amis has appended his novel with an explanatory essay in which he approaches his subject matter in so priestly a manner. (“He has so far gone unnamed in this book: but now I am obliged to type out the words “Adolf Hitler.”) It is essentially an extended acknowledgments section, a mandatory tribute to the “loci classici of the field,” but it feels more like a confession of novelistic anxiety, as though Amis feared he would be accused of lacking the credentials to write about the Holocaust. He even goes on to dedicate his book to “those who survived and to those who did not,” to Primo Levi and Paul Celan, among others — names that ornament his novel like diplomas in a doctor’s office.

I haven’t yet said anything about the novel’s intricate, belabored plot, but then I don’t really see the point in doing so — it is so preposterous and unbelievable anyway. Suffice it to say that, two-thirds of the way through, the novel undergoes a somewhat unaccounted-for change; suddenly, Golo Thomsen is not an opportunistic, womanizing officer in the SS but a love-sick traitor to the Reich who — can you believe it? — quotes W. H. Auden in his letters to Hannah. He begins, in a way, to sound more like his author. “When the future looks back on the National Socialists,” he moralizes, “it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters (could they really have existed, the velociraptor, the tyrannosaur?). Non-human, and also non-mammalian. They are not mammals. Mammals, with their warm blood and live young.”

Reading this, I was reminded of a remark Amis makes in his book-length essay on Stalin, Koba the Dread (2002): “Accounts of the childhoods of the great historical monsters are always bathetic. Instead of saying something like ‘X was raised by crocodiles in a septic tank in Kuala Lumpur,’ they tell you about a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a house, a home” — and I wondered if Amis simply cannot get beyond this fact, or if he refuses to. It’s very funny to say that Nazis are like dinosaurs or crocodiles, but it is a morally evasive maneuver. How much more unsettling to tell yourself, as the late Norwegian writer Stig Sæterbakken does in his essay “Hitler, a Metaphor from Germany,” that “Adolf Hitler was born, as we all areinnocentlyinto this world.”

How much more unsettling, in other words, to actually try to imagine being an officer in the SS, living and working inside the Holocaust, putting yourself in the mind and milieu of those individuals tasked with performing the terrible work that such an annihilating undertaking required. Kommandant Paul Doll, whom Amis tries to goad into an embodiment of Arendt’s “banality of evil,” totters instead as a joke-figure: drunk, boorish, laughable. Evil doesn’t begin to enter into it. Nazism is just a joke — a horrible, murderous joke.

After finishing The Zone of Interest I was so alarmed by my indifference toward it that I reached at once for a book to instill in me the nausea and the shame that usually comes with reading about the Holocaust. I grabbed the late Jorge Semprún’s L’Écriture ou la vie (translated into English as Literature or Life), an essay-memoir about his time in Buchenwald, and came across a passage I’d previously underlined:

[…] I start to doubt the possibility of telling the story. Not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely (that won’t be hard to understand), something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account, but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density. The only ones who will manage to reach its substance, this transparent density, will be those able to shape their evidence into an artistic object, a space of creation. Or of re-creation. Only the artifice of a masterly narrative will prove capable of conveying some of the truth of such testimony. […]

Semprún goes on to say that you can always say everything — “language contains everything. You can speak of the most desperate love, the most terrible cruelty” — but doubts whether people will want to hear everything, imagine everything. I think this fittingly encapsulates the problems of writing about the Holocaust — the overwhelming freedom of the artist on one hand and the fragile literary endurance of the reader on the other. Will we want to hear everything, imagine everything, Semprún wonders? It’s a worthwhile question to ask, particularly since we are still living in a documentary moment; the Holocaust is recent history, and massive historical tomes enlarging our understanding of it are still being written and published. The best fiction about the camps Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz — has therefore shied away from the documentary and found its source of strength in the human particulars instead, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols,” where the fate of Aunt Rosa is compressed into a single, shattering sentence:

Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths — until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.

What is so profound, so upsetting about this sentence is that it captures the collective annihilation of the Holocaust. It was not just Aunt Rosa who died, but “all the people she had worried about”; that is, the entire society to which she had belonged. The Nazis not only killed people, they killed societies, communities, memories — they wiped out entire pasts. I must have known this to be true, but until I came across it in Nabokov’s story I had not felt it before.

There is, I think, a moral impetus to writing fiction about the Holocaust. The Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård says in My Struggle: Book Six that “we still don’t know who died. They lost their names, they turned into numbers” — that is, the messy human particularities of the six million people who died in the camps are almost entirely unknown to us. This, too, constitutes part of the success of the Holocaust. As Knausgård says elsewhere, the individual human being is entirely absent in Mein Kampf; human beings were utterly inferior to the grand ideological project of the Third Reich, as Hitler’s willingness to kill even Germans suggests. (The German people, he said in his final days, “deserve to die.”) Knausgård contrasts Mein Kampf with Ulysses, which he says is its absolute antithesis because it tries to get as close as possible to an individual human being. “In literature the human is a goal in itself,” he writes.

Writing fiction about the Holocaust can therefore become a way of momentarily redressing the oblivion wrought by the Nazis against their victims. Imagining Nabokov’s fussy Aunt Rosa with her wild eyes being put to death “with all the people she had worried about” is to imagine and get close to a particular human fate — an activity quite distinct, I think, from reading that seven tons of human hair were uncovered after the liberation of Auschwitz. For this reason, Martin Amis’s adherence to “that which happened,” however dignified and well-intentioned, turns out to be misguided. It distances the novel from the local, the particular, which is the real province of fiction. And perhaps it is only there, in that shadowy and uncertain terrain, that the most disquieting fact about the Holocaust can be dimly, fleetingly glimpsed: that it was human, all too human.


Morten Høi Jensen is a writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.