THE ZONE OF INTEREST
Alfred A. Knopf
2014, pp. 306, $26.95
The Obscenity Of (Nazi) Love
by Anne Roiphe
I thought I didn’t want to read it: a novel set in Auschwitz from the perspective of Nazi officials, no less, and by a non-Jewish writer. I thought: I have no more room in my mind or grief in my heart for this history I know well enough, all of us know well enough. I was wrong. Martin Amis has written a tale of evil, from the point of view of Evil itself, and he has made it electric, compelling and new. Not new in the sense of new information, but deepened, carving it into our brains, the way only literature can do and even reluctant readers can absorb. Then, after closing the book, readers will wonder at the horror that man can create and the genius in the way words can be used like needles, like knives to take us down deeper. Yes, we have been there before, but not like this.
So it is surprising that the French publisher Gallimard, claiming that the book was unconvincing for literary reasons, refused to publish The Zone of Interest and so did the German publisher Carl Hanser Verlag, saying that the “hero” Golo Thomsen was too sympathetic to the Nazi cause.
Amis set this book on dangerous ground, where emotions run strong and fear of giving offense is high, and Europe itself is now in the throes of a poisonous rise of Jew-hatred following the war in Gaza. The book is firmly on the side of humanity as it mocks and defrocks and spits on the men who created the nightmare event of the 20th century that punctured our image of “conventional” war and reminded us of the evil creatures we are and will be again should the right circumstances arrive.
The brutality of Commandant Paul Doll is not subtle. He taunts his children. He lusts for his wife in a manner that lacks all tenderness and affection. He drinks and drinks, especially on the platform as he supervises the arrival of trains and the gathering of souls for gassing. He is not drinking to drown guilt or shame as we might think. He is drinking from tension, excitement, the fear that something might go wrong and the Jews might panic or cause trouble or disturb the order of things.
His younger colleague, Angelius Thomsen, is the nephew of Hitler’s top aide Martin Bormann and a perfect, handsome Teutonic figure. As the novel begins, his mind roils with sexual desires free of the bother of human connection. He is in charge of building a new work camp to serve German industry. He appears at first as a man who loves his own power and has always had his way with others. Here in the Kat-Zet (The Zone of Interest), he preens, manipulates and curries favor with the commandant.
And there is Hannah Doll, once the lover of a prominent Communist, who drifted into her marriage with the older Nazi, not understanding the cruelty of the man and his savage desires.
So when Angelius (Golo) Thomsen sees her and discovers he can love and feel jealousy and dream of holding and being held with tenderness and longing, he hopes that Hannah will come to him. Possible? Maybe? Not possible? The obscenity of love in such a place is apparent to the reader. The lovers themselves are choking from the smoke and the stench of decaying bodies that follow them everywhere.
Meanwhile other characters—officers of the camp, special inmates saved for sexual purposes, the Bormann family itself, Martin and his wife Gerda—weave through these pages. We see the monstrosity of what is happening in the camps as the sonders, the Jewish males who lead the crowd of prisoners into the gas chamber, strip the dead bodies of gold teeth. They themselves, destined for the gas chamber, serve their masters in suffocated hate and rage. All the prisoners are starved and murdered at the will of the Uniforms that stand above them, giving orders, attending musicals, pretending that their life is ordinary. Children have ponies, lovers exchange letters while just offstage—well we know what is just offstage—but if memory fails, Amis fills in the details for younger readers.
As World War II progresses from certain German victory to defeat at Stalingrad and the American entrance into the war, the mood of the camp grows darker and more dreadful, and the pace of burning bodies increases.
The anti-Semitism of Reich zealots has so permeated the atmosphere that even the less vicious among them are unable to reflect on what they are doing or allow themselves to consider the price others are paying for their adherence to the Nazi view of Jews, Roma or other “contemptible” outsiders.
None of this seems new, but what is truly new is the perspective. The voices we hear are the voices of our enemies, our torturers, our butchers. This is strange and hard to accept and brings us not to pity them, not to forgive or be blind to a moment of their existence, but to see as they must have seen, to be inside evil—not as its victim—but with the eyes of those who held the whips, who withheld the food, who turned on the gas, who lost their God, their humanity, in the Third Reich.
Amis is considered a satirist, admired for a kind of difficult comedy. None of that here. He has taken a point of view and tried it on, not so much as a costume but more as a moral experiment, as a way of understanding what remains so hard to understand: How could they, why did they, are we doomed to repeat it?
The Zone of Interest does not offer answers, but it does create a terrible, quiet place in the mind in which the events that mark the Holocaust are revisited and the raw feelings that have been thankfully buried are unearthed. Our confrontation with Evil and the latent evil within man for ethnic cleansing, as we know it in these times, can be acknowledged yet again.
This novel by Martin Amis will echo in the reader’s mind, joining the best of Holocaust writing. It does not replace Primo Levi, Andre Schwartzbart, Imre Kertez, Elie Wiesel or any survivor, historian or memoirist, but it does expand our grasp of the crippled soul that was Nazism and its disciples. It adds no factual data, no new philosophical terms to reject or accept. What it does, brilliantly, is write a story with characters so gripping—some vile, some just pitiful—that we relive with new immediacy the sin of hubris that set the pyres of Auschwitz burning.
Anne Roiphe is an American feminist author known for such novels as Up the Sandbox and Lovingkindness.