‘Satire-and-war is an old trick (Joseph Heller, anyone?) and a potentially effective one, but this isn’t satire: it’s a trivialisation’ – The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The YBA-esque buzz about this new Amis seems, to me, to be two-parts mystifying to one-part justifiable: the single part is accountable for by the Greatest Hits aspect of his rather wobbly career – Money, London Fields and Time’s Arrow, if nothing else, grant him a place in the ranks of significant British novelists of the late twentieth century and make some degree of excitement about his new offering predictable – but my concomitant mystification swells from the joint facts that, on the one hand, the bulk of his post-Millennium work has been critically slated and popularly ignored to the extent that a high-profile embargo and PR build-up for this new offering seems more like a stunt than a thrill for the fans, and, on the other hand, the actual text itself feels significantly flawed such that the praise that’s already being heaped upon it pre-publication feels weirdly unwarranted. Now, we’re not out-and-out anti-Amis here at Bookmunch – in fact, we enjoyed Lionel Asbo when most everybody else gave it short shrift, and at least two of us have been taught by the man himself, so what follows is coming, we think, from a slightly more nuanced position than you might expect. Disclaimers and provisos aside, though, the clamour around The Zone of Interest has us scratching our heads: it may be dealing with an important topic, but it feels far from an important contribution to what, with a slight cringe, we’ll call Holocaust Literature.
Touted as a love story, The Zone of Interest is set loosely around the infatuation one of its three narrators, Golo Thomsen (the fictional nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary), with Hannah Doll, the wife of the second narrator, Paul Doll, a high-ranking Nazi official with some significant responsibility for expanding the operation at Auschwitz into what will become known as Monowitz, or Auschwitz III, and is referred to semi-cryptically in the text as a demanding new project for the Buna Werke. The third narrator is Szmul, a Jewish member of the Sonderkommando (‘the saddest men in the Lager’), the group of inmates who worked, on pain of death, on the disposal of the bodies from the gas chambers. The book, then, is set in and around Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, and its title refers to the blackout-zone around Auschwitz that was designed both to protect and to hide the camps from discovery and bombing by the Allies. Golo’s feelings for Hannah form the spine of the book, lending it the semblance of a plot, as he tries to help her out by tracking down the fate of her former lover, Dieter Kruger, whose leftist politics had him imprisoned by Doll’s party before Hannah’s and Doll’s own marriage. Meanwhile, Szmul is our window into the daily horrors of the camp as lived experience: the flipside of Doll’s bureaucratic worries and casual violence, Szmul is the arch-victim who is hunting for a moment of redemption for his SK work) and revenge against the murderers for whom he must labour.
The plot is weak, but, to throw Amis a bone, the plot’s hardly the point here: what we’ve got is a book that’s focused on theme and characterisation more so than narrative arc. Amis is attempting to throw new light on the grotesqueries of the concentration camp system by presenting it both as a job and as a background; by positioning lewd water-cooler workplace banter within an arena of genocide, he’s simultaneously pointing to the horror of the rationalisation of human death and to the humanity of the perpetrators. This humanity isn’t, of course, portrayed in the service of exoneration, but to further underscore the grim reality of their actions: by filtering the text through the perspective of a committed Nazi (Doll), an increasingly ambivalent Nazi (Golo) and a Jewish victim with an ambiguous role (Szmul), Amis is showing us the system from within in a way that is, we reckon, intended both to repulse and to engage the reader with its clash of crudity, witticisms, lust, death and torture.
But does it work? The reviews are saying yes: it’s early days yet, but we’re seeing words like ‘important’ and ‘audacious’ and ‘chilling’ tossed about in the mainstream media. And still, our reaction is an adamant no. There seems to us to be nothing particularly audacious about Amis’s mission here: while Time’s Arrow really did present the Holocaust in an interesting way (if you haven’t read it, we urge you to), all that The Zone of Interest does is jam together a kind of crude lads-in-work humour and misogynistic leering with a grand and awful setting such that the atrocities of the Holocaust seem there only to facilitate the (weak) story rather than the story illuminating anything particularly new about human nature or atrocity itself. If you’ve read even the headliners of the Holocaust canon (Primo Levi, Art Speigelman), you’ll be familiar with how the personal and the political can be combined in narrative to make the brutality and the post-facto shock and trauma of the Lager survivor into a really resonant piece of literature; here, though, as in Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, the political seems to act as a facilitating sounding-board for the writer’s desire to write titillating prose about nasty people. The oft-(mis)quoted and misrepresented dictum that there can be no art after Auschwitz has a place here: if what you’re doing isn’t going to act as an illumination of that very particular hell in such a way that makes it valuable to a new human understanding of that event, then what’s the point, Martin? Satire-and-war is an old trick (Joseph Heller, anyone?) and a potentially effective one, but this isn’t satire: it’s a trivialisation. This is a text two-thirds of which is oriented around male lust, jealousy and petty carping about access to whores, and while that does all seem particularly grim in the context of the Lager system, it’s the same old territory for Amis. So the Holocaust setting, to some extent, highlights the boorishness of the typical Amis character – as if this were a necessary spotlight – and the boorishness further illuminates the fact that Real People Committed All These Atrocities. The latter point might be a relevant one, but, again, it’s neither new nor audacious, and in fact, what we find audacious is that the text is one as packed with the objectification of women as it is with the Nazi reification of the Jews: if even the ultra-sensitive territory of the Holocaust can’t illuminate the subtleties of human subjectivity for Amis to the extent that he might break out of his default macho mode, then how can this book be considered, as Eileen Battersby claims, ‘humane’ or ‘humbling’? But what about Szmul, you cry? Surely he’s the counterforce to Golo’s half-hearted efforts at atonement and Doll’s straightforward drunken cruelty? That’s the intention, no doubt: Szmul’s sections are emotionally fraught and affecting, and if you’re not familiar with the workings of the camps, the SK role is uncovered here in a way that would feel honestly shocking. But Szmul, still, is a cipher: he is the victim’s Everyman. His chapters are shorter and they’re devoid of the workaday details and casual conversations and observations that breathe life into the other two narratives. That might be a circumstantial problem – there are few opportunities for chit-chat when you’re an inmate of Auschwitz, after all – but it felt rather more like Amis was unwilling or unable to render Szmul as thoroughly as an individual (rather than as a representative of the victims) as he did the others, whom, despite their other flaws, are characters that exist outside their uniforms. That lack of balance, then, undercuts the solemnity of Szmul’s place in the text and undermines the text’s authority as a discourse on the Holocaust. Returning to Golo, briefly: if we are to understand him as the reader’s stand-in in the text – the individual who awakens to an understanding of what is truly evil around him and who seeks to distance himself from that, even while he is utterly tainted by it – then we have to question what is portrayed to us as his move towards enlightenment: how thought-provoking is a rebellion against Nazi politics when it springs from the desire to seduce one’s superior officer’s left-leaning wife? ‘That would be a big fuck’, says Golo – Hannah, then, is defined, we might suspect in an Amis novel, by her body and by her sexuality. The book is, as we remarked, far from a treatise on the rights of women: narrated by three men, it opens with two of them – Golo and his best friend, Boris Eltz – discussing Golo’s chances with Hannah, and moves then to a sex-scene starring Golo and Ilse Grese, a real-life Aushwitz guard. Women, then, are established immediately as objects to be conquered (and perhaps loved in the conquering) or as vicious criminals (Grese was later hung for war crimes) whose ill-nature is exemplified in their sexual practices. Humane? Audacious? We’re not convinced.
Finally, a brief word on language: the book is in English, clearly, and there’s no prohibition on representing non-English dialogue in English; how else would many a novelist proceed abroad? But Amis uses the odd device of rendering certain words in German to what must be intended as comic effect, and these words, when they’re not simply denoted government departments or aspects of the camps, are almost exclusively sexual or relating to female clothe or activities: Hannah, halfway through, takes off her coat ‘revealing her Unterkleid! [so that Doll] could clearly see the outlines of her Buste, the concavity of her Bauchnabel and the triangle of her Geschlechtsorgane’. The effect here is to reduce her body, and the German language, to a variety of linguistic slapstick such that it becomes impossible to take either it or her seriously. It’s not realistic in terms of a German-speaker’s thought process – this section is allegedly part of Doll’s diary – and so it can only be seen as Amis’s inflection: a conscious mockery of the character of Doll and his own jealous, prudish, thwarted sexuality, that, as a by-product, belittles Hannah. These oddities aside, the prose is dotted with odd phrases that counter Amis’s own stated preference for elegance in language: we get constructions like ‘Hannah took up a hairbrush and went at it with arrogant eyes’, and ‘her mouth opened along all its width’.
The text, then, isn’t compelling as a chunk of prose, nor in formal ingenuity, nor in affective characterisation; it’s adding little or nothing to the literature on the Holocaust and is, in fact, arguably cheapening it by yoking it to a litany of misogynistic representations of women and men. On the other hand, it’s very well researched, and is a thorough and almost-interesting mingling of fact and fiction. Amis’s back catalogue proves he’s capable of better than this – his own previous writings on the Shoah exemplify that – but this is neither effective (or affective) Holocaust fiction nor Amis fiction.
Any Cop? Not at all: steer clear of the hype. Read Time’s Arrow or Maus instead.
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- August 22, 2014 / 6:33 am