Martin Amis has a difficult subject here, but it’s not the first time he’s novelized a concentration camp – the central character in Time’s Arrow (1991) is a Nazi doctor in Auschwitz; House of Meetings (2006) is about a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. In The Zone of Interest, Amis is back at Auschwitz (not named as such in the novel, but immediately recognizable and accurately rendered). And in this instance he cannot rely on the main device of Time’s Arrow – regarded variously by reviewers as either a well-executed party trick or an extraordinary coup – of telling the entire story in reverse, down to the tiniest details of the daily routine. (This reviewer falls into the latter camp regarding Time’s Arrow; it is well worth re-reading.)
In The Zone of Interest, Amis has made significant progress in his own understanding, as he discusses in his Afterword, which is one of the most fascinating parts of the book (though not technically part of the novel at all). Amis read extensively (the bibliography is staggering) and reached only the “negative eureka” conclusion that the Holocaust is simply beyond understanding. But in 2011 he encountered an addendum in a new edition of Primo Levi’s The Truce: an answer to a reader’s question, “How can the Nazi’s fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?” Levi suggested that perhaps this hatred cannot and even ought not be explained, since an explanation implies a rationale. (“To understand is almost to justify.”) And neither can one say the Nazis were simply insane – this excuses them. So perhaps the Nazis are beyond any understanding we can reach of them as humans: they are inhuman or actually un-human.
Amis has no doubt this answer will seem to historians an evasion; for him it acted as a “spur” – not to understand, humanize or rationalize, but to find a new story in one of the most storied of all chapters in what Churchill finely called a tyranny “never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
Amis is here as well deprived of one of his greatest standards – his own voice. Which is only to say that he rotates through three different narrators: an awakening Nazi official, the camp commandant, and the Jewish head sonderkommando. He gives each narrator his own voice – on the whole beautifully done – but must therefore reign in the extremes of his own visual (yes, visual) virtuosity. Occasionally he can’t help himself – the camp commandant feels a certain fear as “a vacuum in my solar plexus, like a globe of hard air.” This is an extraordinary phrase; on reading it, I felt finally in possession of something long searched for. But one can hardly hear it passing through the mind of the character in question.
I have rarely read a book that produced a more intense (in this case almost euphoric) desire to speak with its author. It left me in a questioning state of mind. I will have to read it again before I can be sure what to make of it, but there is a depth in this work that will repay the re-reading.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10
The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis. Knopf, 2014. 306 pages.