Martin Amis’ New Holocaust Novel Picks Up Where Primo Levi Left Off

It was reading the Italian survivor's book 'The Truce' that enabled the English writer to finally write his satirically brilliant new novel about Auschwitz.

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“The Zone of Interest,” Martin Amis, Alfred A. Knopf, 306 pages, $26.95

The German author W.G. Sebald once said that no serious person should ever think about anything but the Holocaust. In an interview with The New Yorker in 2012, Martin Amis agreed with Sebald, saying that he found his thoughts constantly revolving around that statement.

In the research for his new novel, his second literary attempt, after “Time’s Arrow” (1991,) at capturing the experience of the Holocaust, Amis found he was getting no closer to understanding the evil that lay behind Nazi cruelty. However, Amis tells us in his afterword to “The Zone of Interest,” after reading the addendum to Primo Levi’s “The Truce” (1969,) he realized that perhaps such understanding was not required.

In “The Truce,” Levi described his own return from Auschwitz, and argued that it is our duty to accept the actions of the Nazis as incomprehensible, and that understanding them would be tantamount to justifying them. Their words and deeds “are non-human... there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man.” After reading these lines, Amis felt he no longer had to address the “why” of Nazi motivations, a realization that allowed him to finish writing “The Zone of Interest.”

“The Zone of Interest” is a satirical reply to Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951,) Arendt explained that Nazi terror became possible because the Germans thoughtlessly and blindly obeyed orders, fulfilling them with bureaucratic meticulousness. To Arendt, Adolf Eichmann’s incapacity for critical thinking reflected the banality of the evildoer. While watching his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, she wondered: “Could the activity of thinking as such be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evildoing?”

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Martin Amis’ book takes up on Arendt’s question by letting events unfold from the perspective of three male characters who are directly assisting the Holocaust: Angelus “Golo“ Thomsen, nephew to Hitler’s private secretary Martin Bormann, a womanizer and overseer of the construction of an industrial plant in occupied Poland; the camp commander Paul Doll, an overweight, sadist buffoon and alcoholic; and the Polish Jew Szmul, head of the Sonderkommando, a death camp work unit composed of Jews given the task of disposing of the bodies of the dead.

The year is 1942, after the Wannsee Conference of January 22, where senior officials in the German hierarchy organized and coordinated the “final solution to the Jewish question.” The novel is set in Auschwitz III, called “Kat Zet” in the novel (KZ being an acronym for Konzentrationslager, concentration camp), and its industrial plant, the Buna Werke, established at the behest of I.G. Farben in 1942 for the manufacture of synthetic rubber. Chaos is slowly beginning to take over. Trying to meet the efficiency standards set at Wannsee, the Germans find themselves overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of deported Jews arriving at the camp, and the mass murder becomes harder to manage. Camp personnel find themselves infected by prisoners with lice and typhus, the Eastern Front is beginning to collapse, and Doll, the camp’s commandant, is on the verge of a breakdown.

Against the background of chaos and horror, the love story between Golo and Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife, sets the plot in motion. Hannah is a big-boned Aryan, “stolid, countrified, and built for procreation and physical work.” She hates her husband and National Socialism, yet she does not leave the Kat Zet. The beginning of their love story, at least from Golo’s point of view, is a matter of “lust-on-first-sight,” when he watches Hannah walking “home” to the camp in a white summer dress, “wondering what she’d look like with all her clothes off.” Slowly, Golo’s lust changes to love, which ultimately might not go beyond platonic yearning, as Hannah puts it toward the end of the novel: “Imagine how disgusting it would be, if anything good came out of that place,“ namely Auschwitz.

‘The crewcut’s most becoming’

The number of texts available about the Holocaust are boundless, ranging from witnesses’ testimonies, historical accounts, diary entries of victims or Nazis from before, during, and after the Shoah, to novels, poems, plays, films, interviews and more. Intimate fictional accounts of Nazis’ minds, however, are rare. With his book, Amis enters unusual literary territory; the result is a mesmerizing, terrifying and at times funny read.

Amis brilliantly renders the ridiculousness of the Germans’ attempts to justify or euphemize their doings by laying bare their dull cruelty in indifferent and self-deluding conversations. Thus, dialogues range from the borderline comic - “The crewcut’s most becoming,” Doll says to a prisoner who has just had his head shaved, “and is that your phone number? Just joking. Nicht?” referring to his tattoo - to the gruesome: “What don’t we do to them?” Golo asks his colleague Boris, referring to the prisoners. “I suppose we don’t rape them,” he continues. Boris answers:

“Instead we do something much nastier than that We get the pretty ones and we do medical experiments on them. On their reproductive organs. We turn them into little old ladies. Then hunger turns them into little old men.”

I [Golo] said, “Would you agree that we couldn’t treat them any worse?”

“Oh, come on, we don’t eat them. No, what we do is make them eat each other.”

Amis subverts conventional depictions of Nazis as hardened, hyper-organized people. In “The Zone of Interest,” they are depicted as narrow-minded but witty alcoholics who are good at making insinuating jokes, but are at best mediocre at fulfilling their orders. They are moreover depicted as nave believers in Hans Hörbinger’s fantastic cosmic-ice theory of 1894, which holds that the earth was created when the sun collided with a frozen comet, and which had common currency during the Third Reich. Whereas inferior races descended directly from the apes, the Aryans were believed to be preserved in ice until the dawn of the human age.

Occasionally, though, Amis pushes the perpetrators toward self-recognition or even to feeling pity for their prisoners. Thus, the camp’s stench and “purplish-brown slime,” byproducts of the extermination of the Jews, make Doll wonder “if what we’re doing is good, why does it smell so lancingly bad?” Or he muses, “what needed we, really, of the crashing of the boxcars, the blazing arc lights, the terrible yelling (‘Out! Get out! Quick! Faster! FASTER!,’) the dogs, the truncheons, and the whips? If money were no object, all the transportees, so far as I’m concerned, could come here in couchettes [sleeping coaches].”

Ultimately, however, Amis is able to maintain the incomprehensibility of the Nazis’ evil, because they fail to fully reflect upon themselves: “We’re not all of us superhuman,” Doll ponders, “not by any manner of means; and there have been moments, during this great Anstrengung [effort] of ours, when I succumbed to an almost dreamlike vertigo of weakness and doubt. No longer. Ach, vindication is sweet. Wir haben also doch recht! [We are right after all].”

Golo also realizes that “we’re not all of us superhuman:” “When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters Non-human and also non-mammalian. They are not mammals, with their warm blood” Thus, at times, the book’s characters are described as animals. Doll likes to retreat to a “lair,” he has the eyes of a “sick frog,” his alcoholic face resembles a “huge unwashed strawberry,” he sluices his gums like a “ceramic fish,” and his gaze resembles the kaleidoscopic view enjoyed by a fly that is unfathomable to regular humans.

Doll fetishizes Hannah as a collection of erotically charged body parts, which he refers to in German as “Mund” (mouth,) “Hüfte” (hip,) “Arsch” (ass,) “Titte” (tit): “With his shirt off and gasmask on,” Golo observes how, “Doll looks like a fat and hairy old housefly he sounds like a housefly, too, as he repeats the number I have given him: a sizzling whine.”

The Germans’ opponents are at times compared to mammals or birds: the Jews to pigs, bears or gorillas, Hannah resembles a horse, the prisoner Esther a minx, Golo calls himself a sick bird in chains.

In the end, Amis seems to suggest, in line with Primo Levi, that we cannot understand the Nazis’ motives; they are as incomprehensible as the doings of insects and follow their own logic, whereas we humans can easily identify with the suffering of other mammals. In Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglorious Basterds” (2009,) the laughing, charming German Colonel Landa (Christoph Walz) explains that his people are like hawks, who cannot think like the Jews, who are like rats. This characterization was a standard ideological metaphor during the era of Nazi Germany. Amis reinforces this mode of thought: Nazis are like insects or amphibians that cling to mammals and torment them.

‘You looked in the mirror and saw your soul’

For Martin Amis, the concentration camp is a mirror that reflects the dehumanization of those involved, be it high-ranking Nazis, such as Paul Doll, passive housewives such as Hannah, the Jewish Sonderkommando personified by Szmul, or I.G. Farben plant managers like Golo: “You couldn’t live through the Third Germany without discovering who you were.... under National Socialism you looked in the mirror and saw your soul,” says Golo. But it is up to the readers of “The Zone of Interest” to decide whether what they see is human or monstrous, whether the love between Hannah and Golo is touching or perverse, whether Paul Doll is more than just an evil alcoholic, or whether Szmul betrays the Jews, or is driven by “mortal love,” as he himself puts it.

In a 2012 interview with Smithsonian magazine, Amis remarked that he feared the imminent disappearance of the Holocaust from public memory. With “The Zone of Interest,” he sets an impressive and important memorial that complements prior depictions of Nazis and their evil. The book not only captures us by means of breaking a literary taboo: the theme of “romantic Nazi love” in the midst of a concentration camp. What makes the book so remarkable is that Amis depicts the incomprehensibility of evil both as belonging exclusively to the Shoah, and as timelessly human. If the evil of Nazi Germany, even if only for a moment, can wrench a restrained smile from the reader, it has permeated time, and might already have found a new logic for showing its face.

Sarah Pines is a literary scholar, writer and freelance journalist. She lives in New York.