It’s not easy to write about Martin Amis, or his books. No, that’s not quite right: It’s too easy to write about Martin Amis and his books. There are too many things to be said, many of which are too obvious to warrant saying. Every review of a new book by Martin Amis must, in some way, be a review of Martin Amis—a reflection on the State of Amis, on the current condition of his career, and an accounting of the net worth of that career to begin with. Above all, the question that must be addressed is that of whether this book is A) a “return to form,” or B) further evidence of a long decline. (There are other, subsidiary questions to be considered, many of which have to do with whatever casually incendiary remarks—on the issues of religion, race, gender, global politics, children’s literature—the man may have made in the public arena in the run-up to the publication of the book.)
I went so far as to write a draft of this review set in a parallel universe in which The Zone of Interest was the debut novel of an obscure British author I had happened to stumble across by sheer chance, a book by a writer only vaguely remembered for an absurdly stylish video game player’s guide he’d written in the early 1980s. The idea of this parallel universe Amis was that it would allow me to read and write about The Zone of Interest in a contextual vacuum. I wouldn’t need to think about all that other stuff.
This purely formal exercise—a critical gesture of Mart for Mart’s sake—didn’t work, though; it was utterly misguided to try to consider The Zone of Interest as though it existed outside of the context of Martin Amis’ career. Because aside from being maybe the best novel Amis has written since The Information, it’s also the culmination of an endeavor he’s been pursuing for at least that long. The Zone of Interest stands as Amis’ latest reckoning with the incomprehensible darkness of 20th-century history. 1991’s formally daring Time’s Arrow, which reversed the temporal trajectory of the Holocaust, got snarled and flattened in the gears of its own narrative apparatus; 2002’s nonfiction book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, was deeply weird and sometimes dazzlingly misjudged; 2006’s House of Meetings concerned itself with a pair of brothers imprisoned in a gulag. None of those books, for all their gleaming sentences and paragraphs, came close to the thing Amis has been trying to pull off for much of his career: a successful accommodation of his own irreducibly comic talent with the deathly weight of recent European history. The Zone of Interest, in addressing itself to the notoriously unfunny subject of the Holocaust (to what one character calls “the near farcical assiduity of the German hatred”), gets nearer to that success than Amis has ever gotten—and nearer, certainly, than would be allowed for by those critics who claim that Amis has fundamentally mistaken the nature of his talent. (“If Martin Amis had stuck to writing about smoking, shagging and snooker, he could have been the next Nick Hornby,” as the English journalist Julie Birchill put it, insanely.)
The book opens with Angelus “Golo” Thomsen—the first of Amis’ three narrators—taking an erotic interest in the sight of a woman in a white dress, as she walks in the shade of a maple grove with her two daughters. From the opening words, you’re immediately in the presence of that shrewd and indivisible voice, which cannot be other than itself, cannot but assert itself as Amis’: “I was no stranger to the flash of lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt. Enviably experienced in these matters, I was no stranger to the cloudburst—the cloudburst, and then the sunshine and the rainbow.” This kind of rhetorical repetition has always been one of the dominant features of Amis’ prose style; it’s hard to think of another writer, apart from maybe Joan Didion, who has gotten so much mileage out of stylized reiteration. (The repetition point is, of course, endlessly repeated by critics. This is the kind of thing I was trying to avoid, you see, with the parallel universe conceit.) This gorgeously rendered scene is initially suggestive of some pastoral idyll: “A late afternoon in midsummer, with minutely glinting midges ... My notebook lay open on a tree stump, and the breeze was flicking inquisitively through its pages.” Perhaps, you might think, the setting is a university campus, and we are in the company of a scholarly young coxcomb—he describes his manner, after all, as “floridly donnish”, offering an image of himself as dressed in “tailored tweed jacket and twills”.
But this is not the case; we are not in Oxford, or anywhere like it: The novel’s setting, we quickly learn—its eponymous “zone of interest”—is Auschwitz. Thomsen is a high-ranking Nazi, a (fictional) nephew of Martin Bormann. The woman who has caught his eye is Hannah Doll, wife of Paul Doll, the concentration camp’s commandant, based, more or less, on Rudolf Höss.
Throughout the book, the baton of narrative is passed between Thomsen, Paul Doll, and a Polish Jew named Szmul, a member of the so-called Sonderkommando—the elect of the damned who were charged with the disposal of the bodies of their fellow Jews. Amis handles the switches of register with suave composure. It’s Thomsen who occupies the stylistic high ground, delivering his portion of the book with delicate Nabokovian relish and self-regard. He describes his own body, for instance, at impressive length, from the “Flemish chute of the nose, the disdainful pleat of the mouth,” to the “extensile penis, classically compact in repose (with pronounced prepuce).” Thomsen seems occasionally troubled by the nature of his work as a middle-manager in a bureaucracy of slaughter, describing himself at one point as a Schreibtischtater—“a desk murderer”; specifically, he oversees the Auschwitz-based project, run by the chemical giant IG Farben and manned by Jewish slave labor, to develop synthetic fuel and rubber for the war effort.
For much of the book, though, Thomsen is largely preoccupied with trying to get the Kommandant’s wife into the sack. Being the nephew of Hitler’s personal secretary gives him a certain license in this arena, a certain leeway for insubordination, though even in the engine-room of the Holocaust, social norms continue to obtain. The notion of sexual misdemeanor seems unspeakably trivial in the context of the book’s setting, an absurdity of which Thomsen seems grimly aware. Early in the book, during a moment alone with Hannah at the entrance to a greenhouse, he wonders whether it would be “so strange, really, to urge her on inside and to lean into her and gather in my dropped hands the white folds of her dress? Would it? Here? Where everything was allowed?”
Of the three first-person narrators, only Thomsen is given unrestricted access to the lavish treasury of Amis’ prose. Szmul’s sections are unremittingly bleak and harrowingly effective—and notably short, as though he were running out of things to say about the theater of horrors in which he has been forced to act as stage manager. “Nearly all our work,” he writes, “is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and the mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders.” Doll’s narration, though, is curtailed by other means: the dull constraints of his intellect and his imagination. With Doll, Amis is straining his sentences through a filter of cliché. We first encounter him after a stressful incident involving the processing of a trainload of new arrivals, which he informs us has left him with “a splitting headache.” We’re getting the full linguistic dramatization of the banality of evil here, in other words—an idea which has, of course, long been a standard in the repertoire of Nazi platitudes. Doll’s eyes are resolutely averted from his own depravity, and from the unprecedented horror of the “Projekt” he is overseeing. Of the work that Szmul and the other Sonderkommandos do on his behalf—the relocation and rendering and disposal of corpses, or “Stücke” (pieces)—he has this to say: “You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend.”
This blindness is the most compelling thing about Doll, the blank center of his corruption. He’s a vivid creation, a metastasized joke of a character who is both one of history’s most prolific mass murderers and a basically incompetent bureaucrat, known to his colleagues as “the old boozer.” Amis effectively evokes Doll’s inability to apprehend the horror of himself. At one point, disgusted by the smell of death emanating from the camp—from the chimneys, the smoke, the bodies—he feels “as if I were in one of those cloacal dreams that all of us have from time to time—you know, where you seem to turn into a frothing geyser of hot filth, like a stupendous oil strike, and it just keeps on coming and coming and piling up everywhere no matter what you try and do.” It’s not the imagery that is most unsettling here, but Doll’s matter-of-fact assertion—his ability to convince himself—that this is normal, that this is a dream “all of us” have.
But Doll’s blindness is also a character flaw in another, more technical, sense: Amis tends to overdramatize it, and so, as a character in a novel, he’s pretty flawed. Amis is temperamentally a satirist, of course, and so his tendency is to overdramatize pretty much everything. His most memorable characters are sophisticated studies of brute grotesquery: Think of Keith Talent in London Fields; think of John Self in Money; think, for that matter, of the character named “Martin Amis” who has been the protagonist of a long-running episodic farce in the newspapers of the English-speaking world for the past 30 years.
Doll’s animating principle as a character is that of dramatic irony: We are constantly being made aware of the extent to which we know more than he does about himself, of his utter incapacity to see himself for what he is. At one point, he announces “I’ve come to believe that it was all a tragic mistake.” He’s talking not about the Holocaust, but about his marriage: “I turn things over in my mind and, yes, I’ve come to believe that it was all a tragic mistake—marrying such a large woman.” (Because he can’t beat her up, you see: “She’s too fucking big.”) The irony here is too clearly superintended by an authorial hand, and so Doll stops seeming like a complex and self-determined individual and starts to look like very much like an inanimate object of editorial intent. And Amis keeps doing this throughout, keeps making him say things obviously intended for the purposes of his mockery. At one point, he quotes approvingly a passage from Mein Kampf on how “Marxism itself systematically plans to hand the world over to the Jews”, and then insists that “Well, you can’t argue with logic of that calibre. No: quod erat demonstrandum. Next question, please.” There’s a strange collapse of the distinction between the voice of an intellectually coarse and heedless character and the editorial voice of his author; Doll’s approval, in other words, sounds as though it’s being pitched in the kind of ironic register we know to be beyond his range. (Amis’ last novel, the muddled but often very funny Lionel Asbo, was similarly marred by a cumulatively antagonizing insistence on reminding the reader that Lionel speaks with a heavy working-class London accent—on specifying that “paddock” is delivered “with the full plosive on the terminal k.”)
These aren’t trivial lapses, but they’re not structural deficiencies either; I found myself mostly willing to overlook them, to see them as manifestations of Amis’ internalized dispute with the conventions of realism. It’s hard to think of a writer more relentlessly vivid and precise in his evocations of the world, and less bothered about the creation of psychologically convincing characters. One of the perennial criticisms of his work is that his immense comic and stylistic talents are ill-served by his pursuit of profoundly serious subject matters, that he keeps overreaching his range by going after these great and terrible historical themes. There is truth to this, of course: Amis has never written anything as good as Money, his brutal comic evisceration of the demented acquisitiveness of the 1980s. (But then who has? Seriously, I would like to know: Who has?)
What this criticism fails to take into account, though, is the extent to which his Dickensian flair, his fixation on the most violent and debased aspects of humanity, find a commensurate subject in the darkest abominations of the last century. Paul Doll is a kind of nightmare version of Lionel Asbo, or London Fields’ Keith Talent—a small and vicious man, made large in this instance by history’s terrible accommodation of his grotesquerie.
For all his occasional clumsiness, there are few contemporary novelists so skilled at writing these kinds of characters, who can render violence and stupidity with such forceful style and intelligence. The word Hitler never appears in The Zone of Interest; he is only ever spoken of in glancing terms, by euphemisms or circumlocutions. But we do get one glimpse of him, when Bormann asks his nephew, Thomsen, whether he’s ever seen the Führer up close. Thomsen says that he was in the same room as him just once, at Bormann’s own wedding in 1929. He looked, Thomsen recalls, “so much like a pale, pouchy, and cruelly overworked head waiter that every civilian there, I felt, was trying very hard not to hand him a tip.” It’s a pretty solid zinger; if I had a time machine, I’d be happy to travel back to the ’30s and read it aloud to Hitler himself.
But this turns out to be a much more volatile irony, and a more resonant one, than any of Amis’ more controlled and controlling satirical interventions. Because it doesn’t so much cut Hitler down to size—what would be the point of that?—as deepen the enigma of how such a drab and mean character could ever have razed Europe to the ground, could have acquired such catastrophic power in the first place. The attempt to pin him down in this way only serves to illuminate the futility of trying to understand him. When you turn the final page of The Zone of Interest, you’re confronted by his photographic image; there he is, the novel’s unnamed and largely unconsidered antagonist, with his pouched eyes and his feeble mustache and his tight little mouth, staring past you in all his unknowable humanness. We’re none the wiser, and he’s still there. Neither art nor history could ever illuminate that dismal image.
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Knopf.