The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in the Sunday Business Post in 2014.


Fervent admirers of Martin Amis’s fiction – we do exist, and we shall yet prevail – have had a worrying few years. In 2006, Mart published House of Meetings, a brilliant, prismatic short novel about the Soviet slave labour camps. The elements of a late style seemed to be coming together: the gross-out pyrotechnics of the early work – and the infernal energies of the great middle-period trilogy Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995) – had given way to prose of a fierce and sombre burnish. There was an added moral weight, too, as if Amis – frequently chided for basking in the borrowed cachet of Big Subjects (nuclear weapons, terrorism) – had at last found a way to write about the heavy stuff without disproportion. It was all very exciting.

Then, in 2010, came The Pregnant Widow – and something appeared to have gone wrong. Despite occasional resurgences of the old virtuosity, this semi-autobiographical account of a summer spent in an Italian castle at the height of the sexual revolution felt, for most of its length, fatally thin and contrived. Almost uniquely in Amis’s corpus up to that point, The Pregnant Widow neither invited nor withstood rereading. Even worse was to come. Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012) seemed like the work of a writer at the end of his tether. Lionel himself – the loutish lottery-winning protagonist – showed glimmers of the old rude life. But the novel through which he tottered was simply too weird to sustain him. What do you do if your plot revolves around a teenage boy who is sleeping with his own grandmother? You do everything in your power not to make the rest of the book as queasily provoking as that donnée. But Amis seemed unaware of how off-target his satire had become. The engine of his best books – his deep and jaundiced feel for the moral and linguistic deformations of the contemporary world – seemed to have sputtered and died. Could he get it going again? Did anyone want him to?

The Zone of Interest offers no straight answers to these questions. But it very quickly becomes clear how little that matters. Amis’s fourteenth novel is a return to the moral territory, and to the burnished perceptive richness, of House of Meetings. The setting of the novel is Auschwitz, never named as such (“the Zone of Interest” was the Nazi’s name for the camp and its hinterland, including the “Old Town” of Auschwitz itself). There are three narrators. The first is Angelus “Golo” Thomsen: a serial seducer dispatched to Auschwitz to oversee construction of the Buna Werke – the rubber factory built by the slave labour of the inmates. The second is Paul Doll: the camp commandant, a pill-popping alcoholic soused in self-pity. And the third is Szmul: leader of the Sonderkommando, the pressganged squad of Jewish prisoners forced to help the Nazis with the extermination process – with the “selections” on the ramp, with the marches to the gas chamber, with the disposal of the bodies (and with the postmortem removal of gold fillings, hidden jewellery, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs). Between them, these three narrators recount a story almost without precedent – a story of daily life in the largest death camp of the Nazi genocide.

In some ways we might think of The Zone of Interest as the Holocaust novel Vladimir Nabokov never got around to writing (though of course the camps, and their victims, haunt the backgrounds of Bend Sinister [1947] and Pnin [1957]). Both Thomsen and Doll are Nabokovian narrators – each in his own way linguistically scrupulous, each in his own way a monster of self-betrayal. As with House of Meetings, the novel gets its energy from a love triangle. One summer afternoon on the edges of the Zone, Thomsen spots Doll’s wife Hannah, parading with her children. He is immediately stricken: “I was no stranger to the flash of lightning.” He sets out to lure her into his bed. Moving through the mockery of civilised life that the Nazis conducted in the camp (the formal dinners, the thés dansants), Thomsen pursues Hannah right under her husband’s bibulous, paranoid nose. And then, gradually, he falls in love with her: the real thing. And Amis asks: can love mean anything at all, in such a place, at such a time?

Meanwhile Doll goes about his work of slaughter, which he relates in the language of the harried bureaucrat – why can’t Berlin just let him get on with his job? Such is Doll’s devotion to painting the (literally) sulfurous soil of the camp in bright colours that his euphemisms soon become the stuff of the grimmest comedy. To murder, in Doll’s inverted world, becomes “to utilise the concordant modality.” In The Zone of Interest, Amis’s staggering linguistic gifts return in full force. The jokes are real jokes – the book will make you laugh – but set against the background of the camp, they become something more than jokes. They become occasions for tears, and for the silence that can seem like  the only possible response to “that which happened” (the phrase is Paul Celan’s; Amis quotes it in a thrillingly perceptive Afterword). More poignantly still, the book takes us right up against the limits of language. Let Szmul, “the saddest man in the world,” have the final say. Scribbling his testament on stolen paper, he writes: “I am choking, I am drowning. This pencil and these scraps of paper aren’t enough. I need colours, sounds – oils and orchestras. I need something more than words.”


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