The Zone of Interest: A novel
“Unfortunately, there are too many horrors in the world, and we have become too numbed by traditional storytelling. We need books like this one to slap us in the face.”
The problem with Martin Amis’s controversial new novel, The Zone of Interest, is not that he dares to write about Auschwitz as a satire of office bureaucracy.
No, the problem is that halfway through the book, Amis wimps out. As though scared of his own icon-bashing, he abruptly switches one of his three narrators, Angelus Thomsen, from an intellectual anti-Semite bothered by the “ridiculous” excesses of the concentration camps, to a standard hero who tries to undermine the vital Nazi effort to make synthetic rubber.
That’s too bad, because the office-bureaucracy approach is actually far more chilling than any straightforward story.
As another narrator, Paul Doll, the avid Nazi commandant of the fictitious Polish camp Kat-Zet (modeled on Auschwitz), muses after one transport of Jews: “In financial terms, ST 107 was something of a disaster. How do I justify the mobilization of a full Storm (with flamethrowers)? . . . N.B. No gasoline was used, and this must count as an economy, albeit minor.”
Covering mainly the span from August 1942 to May 1943, the novel regularly alternates among the voices of Thomsen, Doll, and Szmulek Zachariasz, a Sonderkommando—one of the Jewish prisoners forced to dispose of the corpses of their fellow murdered Jews.
Thomsen is a supposed nephew of the real-life Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, with a vaguely defined job as the liaison between Kat-Zet and the nearby Buna-Werke synthetic-rubber factory. At first, he and his longtime friend Boris Eltz—a senior colonel in the elite Waffen-SS who is stationed at Kat-Zet—casually discuss the inefficiencies of wasting German manpower in killing Jews and compare notes on their hoped-for romantic conquests. In Thomsen’s case, the potential conquest is Doll’s wife Hannah.
Meanwhile, Commandant Doll s sanity is eroding, along with Hannah’s friendliness and the German siege of Stalingrad.
Szmul, for his part, is a less original character. He survives day to day, wracked with guilt.
Clearly, Amis—a prizewinning author and veteran satirist who has published more than two dozen books over a 40-year career—is having fun with Doll. The prudish, sexually frustrated commandant sputters as his wife slips off her robe, “revealing her Unterkleid! 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.” A reader doesn’t have to speak German to get the idea.
So far, so good. But Amis goes too far, turning satire into heavy-handed caricature. Doll is not only a Nazi fanatic who calls Hitler “the Deliverer” and Jewish corpses “pieces,” but he is also a liar, a bully, a coward, and a Peeping Tom who spies on Hannah in the bathroom. The plot becomes so stacked that a reader actually starts feeling sorry for him
Thomsen in his own way also becomes a caricature. Why does he suddenly decide to risk his life by sabotaging the synthetic rubber program, which is vital if Germany is to counter Britain’s access to the natural rubber sources in its empire? Apparently, Thomsen is driven by infatuation with Hannah, but she’s not much of an inspiration. Her main act of rebellion is to sneer at Doll.
Still, these flaws are minor compared to the book’s brilliant, powerful understatement in treating a concentration camp like everyday office life. As well, there are some wonderful set pieces, such as Thomsen’s genuine affection for his Aunt Gerda, a devoted wife, aunt, mother of nine (aiming for a medal for 10), and Nazi.
The Zone of Interest is not the first work of fiction to look at a Nazi officer as an ordinary family man (consider The Commandant of Lubizec by Patrick Hicks, earlier this year) nor the first to treat Nazi officers as comic figures (the TV show Hogan’s Heroes broke that taboo in the 1960s). Still, this remains dangerous, rarely explored territory. In fact, Amis’s regular German and French publishers both rejected the book.
But those publishers are doing their countries a disservice. Unfortunately, there are too many horrors in the world, and we have become too numbed by traditional storytelling. We need books like this one to slap us in the face.