Unsettling, audacious Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

Review: A brave, humane novel, set in a concentration camp, takes a hard look the attrocities of the second World War

The Zone of Interest
Author: Martin Amis
ISBN-13: 978-0224099745
Publisher: Cape
Guideline Price: €18.99

A man admits to watching a woman and her two daughters, all three wearing white dresses and cream-coloured straw hats, as they proceed along a tree-lined avenue. The narrator keeps pace, describing the scene as if it were a painting, and sounds smitten: “Something happened at first sight. Lightning, thunder, cloudburst, sunshine, rainbow – the meteorology of first sight.”

Later he confides to an old friend that it had made him feel young again. "It was like love . . . I said like love. Don't look so stricken. Like love. A feeling of inevitability. You know. Like the birth of a long and wonderful romance. Romantic love."

It begins casually, two youngish men chatting, lamenting their slightly younger selves, mocking the slightly older superior who managed to marry a beauty, the narrator's love object. The men could be sitting in a country pub. Instead they have been posted to a wartime concentration camp. Exactly which one it is becomes clear at the mention of Ilse Grese, an infamous guard at Auschwitz who was later hanged for her war crimes. And "Uncle Martin" is not Amis taking a walk-on part; it is a reference to Hitler's private secretary, Martin Bormann.

As a writer Martin Amis has consistently been daring and original, shocking and funny, and at times profoundly moving. He is a natural stylist and at his best – as in Money (1984), The Information (1995) and House of Meetings (2006), and in the nonfiction of his essays and memoir – he is the finest of British writers, a divider of opinion. With his linguistic panache and wicked humour, his inspired feel for a phrase or an image, Amis is always exciting.

The famous son of a famous father, Amis junior soon outwrote Kingsley. Although the life and times, loves and teeth of Martin Amis have filled many column inches, his work is the real story. His new novel is moral and emotive, a minefield through which Amis moves with a lightness of touch and profound intent.

The great WG Sebald maintained of the inhuman atrocities carried out in eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 that no serious person could ever think about anything else, and Amis, for whom evil has become a prevailing theme, has taken this to heart. How did it happen? How could it happen? Novelists try to explain because historians have failed.

Time's Arrow (1991) was a response of sorts to a rewind sequence in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), when Billy Pilgrim watches footage of US planes scooping back up bombs falling on Dresden. As if by magic, ruined buildings are instantly restored. All is as it was before. It left a deep impression on Amis.

Few critics expected Time's Arrow. Commentators said Amis should not have ventured into such complex historical material. It is a shocking tale in which a recently dead war criminal, once a doctor in a death camp, lives his life in rewind. As ever with Amis, opinion was divided, although Time's Arrow earned the writer his only Man Booker shortlisting to date.

Having explored the Soviet-gulag era in House of Meetings, Amis now returns to the hell of the Holocaust. The Zone of Interest, told by three very different narrators, is a larger work on several levels. It attempts not so much to explain the horrific evils of the Holocaust as to explore why any explanation remains evasive.

For the prose alone it will be received as one of his most accomplished performances. This intriguing novel, with its adroit characterisation and sharp dialogue, cleverly blending formal and colloquial speech, makes impressive use of source material without becoming overwhelmed by it. Above all, Amis the novelist has written an important, factually based book that succeeds both as art and as story.

Grotesque reality

The young man, Thomsen, Bormann’s nephew, sets his sights on the statuesque Frau Hannah Doll, wife of the drunkard and camp commandant Paul Doll, another – and by far the most entertaining – of the narrators. In fact, he is any one of Amis’s previous star-turn villains, reprising Keith or even lazy old Lionel Asbo.

Amis has a habit of displaying his immense street credibility, yet here he asks how such a cultivated nation as Germany became caught up in such horror. Amis also emphasises the grotesque reality that Auschwitz was a perverted business, run as if it were a factory.

Kommandant Doll and his sexually remote wife have many problems, not least that she remains devoted to her first lover, an older man who rejected her because she was insufficiently politically committed. Her new admirer, the hapless Thomsen, must also deal with the lingering feelings Hannah retains for this man, and he sets out to find out what happened to him.

Late in the narrative the aspiring suitor confesses: “The truth was that I had another reason to resent Dieter Kruger. Whatever else he might or might not have been (conceited, predatory, trust-abusing, heartless, wrong), he was capable of courage. Hannah had loved him. And he was brave.”

Amis pays careful attention to detail. He creates a sense of the daily life in the camp, here called Kat Zet. The dialogue is telling; conversations include casual references to exactly what stage the war is at and how badly it is going. Historical events are mentioned as if by the way. A character is losing weight, someone else disappears, the commandant’s daughters are distressed by the afflictions stalking their pony.

It all contributes to a busy, textured novel; the characters live and breathe, moving about within a strange, surreal and unnatural world, one that has become distorted like fragmented glass. These characters both suffer and inflict suffering. Amis leaves it largely up to the reader to decide which ones, if any, merit our sympathy.

Above all, however unlikely it seems, The Zone of Interest is a love story. Even the title, which refers to the area and outer boundary surrounding the camp, is used ambivalently; Thomsen's interest in Hannah is confined to an idealised zone of experience.

The familiar Amis humour is present, as are the sharp asides, as well as an urgency and a suppressed moral outrage. Nothing is naive or hysterical; Amis has done his research, and the acknowledgments are informative. This novel, for all its style, is deeply serious and deliberate, more meditation than polemic. It is also far more subtle than it may at first appear. There is a powerful intent here; he is attempting the impossible, to do justice to the material, to the millions who were lost.

Rampaging talent

The love story has its appeal. But the most compelling aspect of a novel that will impress his admirers and confound his critics is the brilliant use Amis makes of his third narrator, Szmul, a tragic Polish Jew whose job is checking corpses for hidden valuables.

He is ill with guilt, remarking of himself and his coworkers: “as well as being the saddest men who ever lived, we are also the most disgusting . . . Nearly all our work is done among the dead . . . ”

It is Szmul who recalls: “Once upon a time there was a king, and the king commissioned his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. It showed you your soul – it showed you who you really were . . . The king couldn’t look at it . . .”

Unsettling and audacious, The Zone of Interest is a mature showman's work, shaping art from horror and reality. Amis counters his linguistic virtuosity with history, compassion and a considered grasp of the evil men do. Szmul speaks of "a bewildered lull . . . It is like an attack – and again I admit to bathos – of moral embarrassment."

Highly cerebral and innovative, and also human, humane – even humbling – this is a brave, inquiring work from a literary maverick whose biggest problem as an artist has been his rampaging talent. He has certainly harnessed it here.