The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Knopf)
She was coming back from the Old Town with her two daughters, and they were already well within the Zone of Interest. Up ahead, waiting to receive them stretched an avenue—almost a colonnade—of maples, their branches and lobed leaves interlocking overhead. A late afternoon in midsummer, with minutely glinting midges. ... Tall, broad, and full, and yet light of foot, in a crenellated white ankle-length dress and a cream-colored straw hat with a black band, and swinging a straw bag (the girls, also in white, had the straw hats and the straw bags), she moved in and out of pockets of fuzzy, fawny, leonine warmth. She laughed—head back, with tautened throat.
So begins “First Sight,” the opening chapter of The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis’s provocatively titled fourteenth novel—but where, then, are we really? The Old Town, after all, might be anywhere in the old world of romantic allusiveness. A late afternoon in midsummer: isn’t that where we first discover Isabel Archer, yet another enchanting figure seen within a verdant vista? Or might this radiant painterly vision—the white dress, the dappled path, the insouciant tread—reflect Leonard Woolf’s rapturous first glimpse of Virginia Stephen, also in white dress and round hat, as “when in a picture gallery you suddenly come face to face with a great Rembrandt or Velasquez”?
As for the Zone of Interest, this too can be found anywhere, including the erotic turf of the psyche—and isn’t instant infatuation frequently fiction’s particular Zone of Interest? Here, though, the phrase will shock a knowing ear—it is, in its original German, the Interessengebiet of a sprawling Third Reich death camp: an area cleared of its native residents to accommodate workaday camp administration, storage for gas cylinders, barracks for the lesser SS, and housing for the officers and their families. The laughing, light-footed young woman who so quickly captivates the narrator is Frau Hannah Doll, the wife of Kommandant Paul Doll, the man chiefly responsible for the efficient running of the murder factory. And Golo Thomsen, her love-struck observer, is himself an officer charged with slave-labor operations at the adjacent I. G. Farben Buna-Werke. It is he who will argue over how much brute hunger a slave worker can endure before he grows useless and is shot or sent to the gas. He also has the distinction of being the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, confidant, and trusted deputy.
The leafy idyll, it turns out, is a sham, the artful novelist’s Potemkin village masking rot. Hence the publisher’s absurdist blast: love in a concentration camp. And love, moreover, not among the sexless doomed, but in the privileged quarters of the masters of death—yet another upstairs-downstairs drama, upstairs as usual plush and advantaged and lavishly expressive of feeling; downstairs a hill of skulls. Anus mundi as viewed not by the broken and the damned, but by their shatterers. A satire, then? A bitter comedy?
By now, seventy years after the closing of the camps, The Zone of Interest, however else it is perceived, must be regarded as a historical novel, a literary convention by its nature inexorably tethered to verifiable events. All the same, it remains a novel, with fiction’s primal freedom to invent its own happenings, both the plausible and implausible, the sympathetic along with the repellent, the antic embedded in the unspeakable. Imagination is sovereign. Characters are at liberty to contemplate their lives and shape and assess them as they wish. Interior thought is rampant. We are privy to all things hidden: rivalry, vanity, deception, jealousy, lust.
Scripture, which purports to be history, is mainly impatient with interiority. It is God, we are told, who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and after this no more need be said. Pharaoh’s wickedness is absolute, dyed in the marrow, opaque; no light can be leeched from it. We are not permitted to know more than the intractable breadth and depth of this wickedness—nothing of Pharaoh’s psychology, nothing of his inner musings, nothing of his everyday, how he was appareled, whether he was sometimes in his cups, or if he bantered with his courtiers, how often he summoned women of the palace, or of the brickworks, to his bed; or if he ever faltered in remorse. God is a judge, not a novelist; this is the meaning of a God-hardened heart: the deed’s the thing.
Novelists, mini-gods though they may be, do not harden hearts, and inner musings are their métier. A deed, however foul, has an origin, or call it a backstory, and every backstory is a kind of explanation, and every explanation is on its way to becoming, if not quite an absolution, then certainly a diagnosis. And then the evildoer (if such an absolutist term is admissible), having been palpated for diagnosis, is reduced from zealous criminal to one possessed of a “condition” not of his own making—insanity, perhaps, or the inevitable outcome of an ideological rearing. In literary fiction (here we naturally exclude comic strips and melodrama), there are no outright villains, and even a Pharaoh would be interestingly introspective.
In an Afterword both bibliographical and discursive—itself an anomaly in a novel—Amis grapples with the monstrous question of such explanatory mitigations: monstrous because it teeters perilously over the filthy chasm of exculpation. In support of the novelist’s right to imagine the inmost workings of evil’s agents, he cites, reverently, a passage from Primo Levi:
Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: “understanding” a proposal or human behavior means to “contain” it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him. Now, no normal person will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and endless others. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human. ... [T]here is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man.
A hate that is outside man. It would appear on the face of it that Levi’s insight is nothing if not instinctively biblical: hearts so hardened, and deeds so inhumanly wicked, that only God can fathom them. Yet Amis comes away from these seemingly transparent reflections with the sense of having been granted permission, or even a blessing. “Historians,” he begins, “will consider this more an evasion than an argument,” and goes on to remind us that Levi was also a novelist and a poet, placing him “very far from hoisting up the no-entry sign demanded by the sphinxists, the anti-explainers.” Instead, Amis oddly insists (against Levi’s plain language) that it is Levi himself who is “pointing to a way in.”
Amis’s way in to the hate that is outside man is fully and unstintingly the novelist’s way. If the deed’s the thing, it’s not the only thing. Soliloquies that tunnel into minds to expose their folly or their intransigence or their delusions, and sometimes their disillusions. The permutations of plot, the rise and fall of ambition and hope, whether in the rivalrous bureaucracy of death-making or in the chancy living and automated dying of the doomed. And of course the tentative strivings of the well-advertised love in a concentration camp. The camp is, after all, a hierarchical society; a kind of village, a veritable Middlemarch of Nazidom; or better yet, given its dense though highly transient population, a bustling, busy city with recurring traffic bottlenecks, especially at the ramp, where the selections take place. In cinematic mode, there are scenes outdoors and indoors. Outdoors: always the ramp looming over its thickened plaza of human detritus; the Stücke (“pieces,” as one speaks of inanimate cargo) just disgorged from the freight cars; and the tragic Szmul, the most pitiable of the doomed, the grieving overseer of a vast heaving meadow of human ash, a Sonderkommando fated to escort the unsuspecting victims to their end.
And indoors: the SS bigwigs and their wives at the theater (the Interessengebiet is not without Kultur), or enjoying a concert, or a ballet where the young principal dancer is one of the Häftlinge. Ilse Grese, a sadistic and lecherous female guard seen in her private billet—her surname that of a notorious SS Helferin tried after the war and hanged for savagery, her Christian name invoking Ilse Koch of human-skin lampshade infamy. Martin Bormann at home en famille, his wife Gerda perpetually and aspiringly pregnant (each of her nine surviving children named for yet another prominent Nazi), hoping to win a coveted award for Aryan fertility. The charming villa of Paul and Hannah Doll, with its garden and pet tortoise, its Häftling Polish gardener, a former professor of zoology, and its Häftling housemaid, a compliant Jehovah’s Witness suitably called Humilia. The pampered Doll daughters, cosseted in the routines of a normal childhood (their mother duly accompanies them to school and sees to their proper bedtime), perturbed by their sickly pony, brokenhearted over the killing of their tortoise, yet oblivious to the hourly killing all around. The unfortunate Alisz, widow of a German soldier, herself only recently welcome at the dinner table, now a subhuman confined in a solitary cell, tainted by the discovery of her Sinti (gypsy) blood. And pervasively, both indoors and out: the relentlessly inescapable smell of burning human flesh.
“My own inner narrative,” Amis notes, “is one of chronic stasis. ... I first read Martin Gilbert’s classic The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy in 1987; in 2011 I read it again, and my incredulity was intact and entire—it was wholly undiminished.” The phrase “chronic stasis,” even removed from the intent of its context and on its own, is remarkable for what it imparts. The Zone of Interest is not Amis’s first venture into the deadly morass of assembly-line Jew-killing. It was preceded two decades earlier by Time’s Arrow, an Ezekiel-inspired vision of reversed chronology: the bony dead refreshed into bloom. Clearly Amis is possessed by these smoldering particulars; he is not among those worldly sick-and-tired-of-hearing-about-it casuists for whom the Holocaust has gone stale to the point of insult. In a novel so hotly close to the rind of history, he is scrupulously faithful to the findings of the scholars and committed to a flawless representation of place, time, and event. Most telling is his admission of a single purposeful deviation: “My only conscious liberty with the factual record was in bringing forward the defection to the USSR of Friedrich Paulus (the losing commander at Stalingrad) by about seventeen months.” The confession attests to the novelist’s aversion to manipulative fakery.
The facts, accordingly, are meticulously attended to; but then, as mockery follows mockery, come the voices with their slyly revealing ironies that turn self-deception into satire, and self-appraisal into stinging disclosure. Kommandant Doll is frequently the butt of these unwitting sallies, as when, contemplating his personal nature, he declares himself “a normal man with normal feelings. When I’m tempted by human weakness, however, I simply think of Germany and of the trust reposed in me by her Deliverer—whose vision, whose ideals and aspirations, I unshakably share.” And here Amis may be lampooning Hannah Arendt’s inflammatory thesis of the “banality” of a murderous SS zealot—as if he were to ask, what could be more commonplace, more normal, than full-bore fanaticism?
But ridicule finds a still ampler berth: Doll, questioning Prufer, his second-in-command and “an unimpeachable Nazi,” is eager to learn how the siege of Stalingrad is proceeding.
“Oh, we’ll carry the day, mein Kommandant,” he said over lunch in the Officers’ Mess. “The German soldier scoffs at the objective conditions.”
“Yes, but what are the objective conditions?”
“Well we’re outnumbered. On paper. Ach, any German is worth 5 Russians. We have the fanaticism and the will. They can’t match us for merciless brutality.”
“... Are you sure about that, Prufer?” I asked. “Very stubborn resistance.”
“With our zeal? Victory’s not in doubt. It’ll just take a little longer.”
“I hear we’re undersupplied. There are shortages.”
“True. There’s hardly any fuel. Or food. They’re eating the horses.”
“And the cats, I heard.”
“They finished the cats.”
The absurdity builds: dysentery, lice, frostbite, dwindling ammunition, encirclement; and finally surrender. And still the clownish back-and-forth of illusory confidence: “The German ranks are impregnable.” “Besides, privation presents no obstacle to the men of the Wehrmacht.” “For a German soldier, these difficulties are as nothing.” “How can we go down to a rabble of Jews and peasants? Don’t make me laugh.” A pair of buffoons. Abbott and Costello in Nazi dress.
Doll, meanwhile, is regarded as an incompetent fool even by his confederates. His peroration at the ramp—following the usual reassuring litany of disinfection, showers, hot soup afterward—is a failure, since it introduces what is instantly suspect: But if there’s anything you especially treasure and can’t afford to be without, then pop them in the barrel at the end of the ramp. “You don’t deceive them any more,” they chide him. “There are some very unpleasant scenes nearly every time. ... You sound so insincere. As if you don’t believe it yourself.” To which Doll indignantly responds, “Well, of course I don’t believe it myself. ... How could I? You think I’m off my head?”
Arendt, so proudly sealed in intellect that nothing could penetrate the armor of her synthesis, ended less in condemnation than in mitigation—her neutered Eichmann is a weak-kneed Pharaoh, scarcely worth all those plagues. History as comedy has a parallel effect: it trivializes the unconscionable. The blood the clown spills is always ketchup.
Hannah Doll is not trivialized. She baits her husband, she withholds sex, she listens to subversive enemy radio; and, as we eventually discover, she has privately given the Kommandant a black eye. To hide the shame of it, he pins the blame on the Polish Häftling and his shovel. And to add to the gardener’s fabricated culpability, it is Doll himself who smashes the tortoise so prized by his young daughters. As penalty, his hapless victim is swiftly dispatched to his death.
Throughout all this grim chaos, Amis means us to view Hannah as an internal dissident, a melancholy prisoner of circumstance: perhaps even as a highly privileged quasi-Häftling powerless to rebel. Though seeing through Doll’s cowardice and deception, she conforms, however grumblingly, to bourgeois life among the chimneys—the dinners, the playgoing, the children’s indulgences. Her own indulgence: cigarettes, the lesser reek intended to overcome the greater. Her open derision, seen by Doll’s colleagues as a wifely nuisance, is pointless; the fake showerheads continue to spew their poison. Her needling humiliations of Doll affect nothing; the daily business of the ramp prevails.
In the historic facticity of the camps, does Hannah Doll have a real-life counterpart? And does it matter if she does or doesn’t? The women of the camps have left a substantial record, not only the grisly SS Helferinnen with their uniforms and whips, but the SS wives in their well-appointed villas, shamelessly flaunting rings and necklaces seized from the doomed. The base activities of many such women are documented in Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, a volume not included among Amis’s acknowledgments—though Hannah is proof of his copious knowledge of these spousal miscreants: she is their purposefully contrapuntal projection.
“What is especially striking about these wives,” Lower writes, “is that ... they were not officially given any direct role in the division of labor that made the Holocaust possible. Yet their proximity to the murderers and their own ideological fanaticism made many of them into potential participants.” She instances Erna Petri, the wife of Horst Petri—an SS officer attached to the Race and Settlement Office (a euphemism for the mass annihilation of Jews)—who found cowering at a roadside six half-naked little boys somehow escaped from a death-bound freight car. She took them home, fed them, and then, one by one, shot each child in the back of the neck. Liesel Willhaus, another SS wife and a crack shot, delighted in picking off Jews from her balcony. SS honeymooners celebrated their love in the midst of deportations and mass executions. All in all, exemplars of SS wives reveling in atrocities abound—and still this heinous chronicle yields not a single Hannah Doll.
Golo Thomsen, Hannah’s aspiring lover, is made of the same exceptionalism. From his position defending slow starvation of the Buna slave laborers—against a proposal that a few more daily calories would speed the work—he at length comes to welcome Germany’s defeat. So much so, that calling on the little English he can muster, he quietly joins a British prisoner of war in reciting “Rule Britannia”—even as he recognizes that the man is a likely Buna saboteur. (As it happens, not an ounce of the synthetic rubber vaunted by the Germans ever emerged from the Buna-Werke.) That an SS official, the nephew of Martin Bormann, a Nazi of such elevated rank that he dines with the Führer at his gilded mountain retreat, should end as a turncoat in the harshest hour of Germany’s eastern Blitzkrieg ... ah, but isn’t this the very conundrum woven by the twining of history and fiction? Has a believably disaffected Golo Thomsen ever been known to recant in an actual Zone of Interest? Do the oceanic testimonies of this fraught period throw up any evidence of even one SS officer who, while within earshot of the cries of the doomed, decried those cries? And if not, it must be asked again: does it matter?
History commands communal representation—nations, movements, the reigning zeitgeist. Fiction champions the individuated figure. Bovary is Bovary, not an instantiation of the overall nature of the French bourgeoisie. Characters in novels (unless those novels are meant to be allegories) are no one but themselves, not stand-ins or symbols of societies or populations. History is ineluctably bound to the authenticity of documents; but all things are permitted to fiction, however contradictory it may be of the known record.
It is this freedom to posit redemptive phantoms that justifies the historic anomalies that are Hannah Doll and Golo Thomsen. And further: no literary framework is more liberated from obligation to the claims of history than comedy, with its manifold jesters: parody, satire, farce, caricature, pratfall. All these are entertainments—and so it is that we are frankly entertained by Kommandant Doll, even as he stands “with sturdy fists planted on jodhpured hips” on the murderous ramp. And still further: something there is in the resistance to parody that is obtuse, dense, dully unread. What of Gulliver, what of Quixote? To resist the legacy of their majestic makers is to deny literature itself. Then why resist Amis, their daringly obsessed if lesser colleague? And why pursue skepticism of love in a concentration camp? Or of latecomer dissidents who nevertheless eat and drink in comfort on the lip of the merciless inferno?
Read beforehand, as one is tempted to do, Amis’s Afterword becomes the novel’s mentor and conscience. In it he echoes Paul Celan’s “coldly muted” naming of the Holocaust as “that which happened”—a phrase again reminiscent of the biblical refusal of elaboration—and adds, “I am reminded of W. G. Sebald’s dry aside to the effect that no serious person ever thinks about anything else.” In this way the Afterword, in combination with Sonderkommando Szmul, the novel’s third interior voice, repudiates and virtually annuls all other voices, the farcical with the ahistorical; and nearly erases also the dominating voice of the novel itself. For Szmul, no suspension of disbelief, fiction’s busy handmaiden, is required, and no element of caricature can touch him. He alone is immune to the reader’s skepticism, he alone is safe from even the possibility of diminishment through parody; and this holds both within the novel’s pliancy and in the tougher arena of historical truth.
It is Szmul who speaks of “the extraterritorial nature of the Lager”: “I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before—I feel that if you knew every minute, every hour, every day of history, you would find no exemplum, no model, no precedent.” His macabre task (“the detail,” as he obliquely calls it) is to shepherd the doomed to the gas, and then to dispose of their close-packed corpses first to the ovens, and then to the limitless and undulating fields of ash. As a secret-bearing witness, he will soon be consumed by the very fire that he himself facilitated:
When squads of heavily armed men come to the crematory and this or that section of the detail knows that it is time, the chosen Sonders take their leave with a nod or a word or a wave of the hand—or not even that. They take their leave with their eyes on the floor. And later, when I say Kaddish for the departed, they are already forgotten.
Szmul is one of the chosen—chosen by the power of the jackboot to be the servant of these gruesome rites. Ruth Franklin, reviewing the novel in The New York Times, describes the “crematorium ravens” of the Sonderkommando as “the nadir of degradation,” “a portrait of depravity.” But Amis’s Szmul is a presence of lacerating pathos and unrelenting mourning. In a brittle tone so colloquially matter-of-fact as to shatter its burden, he ruminates, “I used to have the greatest respect for nightmares—for their intelligence and artistry. Now I think nightmares are pathetic. They are quite incapable of coming up with anything even remotely as terrible as what I do all day.” He recalls a time at Chelmno when the quantities of carcasses were so overwhelming that the SS “selected another hundred Jews to help the Sonders drag the bodies to the mass grave. This supplementary Kommando consisted of teenage boys. They were given no food or water, and they worked for twelve hours under the lash, naked in the snow and the petrified mud.” Szmul’s two sons were among them; and in this plain-spoken account we can perhaps hear (yet only if we are open to it) a judgment on the omnipresent misuse and abuse of “that which happened.” Amis’s crematorium raven flies out from the novel as its single invincibly convincing voice.
Despite the Afterword’s dismissal of “the sphinxists, the anti-explainers,” it is they, knowing what is at stake, who are finally in the right. And what is at stake is the conviction that premeditated and cocksure evil is its own representation, sealed and sufficient. A hardened heart needs no reason beyond its own opacity. The ripened deed is all; to riff on it is to veil it. This is not to say that The Zone of Interest ought never to have departed the wilder precincts of Amis’s cunning imaginings. It is good to have this fractious novel. It makes the best argument against itself.