Several years ago, in the late 1990s, an acquaintance I met at a conference suggested we each read a favorite book recommended by the other. For him, I proposed Francisco Goldman’s debut novel The Long Night of White Chickens, published in 1992. It came to mind immediately — a story that captivated me with its plot about a woman who runs an orphanage in Guatemala and the mystery of her murder. For me, he proposed The Information by Martin Amis. I hadn’t read anything by this acclaimed British author, who had by then published many novels, including the Booker short-listed Time’s Arrow, so I looked forward to this new book and its comedic approach to two novelists at odds with one another.
The Information turned out to be so far from what I would call a favorite in my reading world that I promptly turned to another Amis novel, thinking it was just a wrong fit. But Amis’s Other People, about a woman who’s lost her identity and, after that, London Fields and Night Train didn’t resonate with me either, although I recognized the brilliance of Martin Amis, universally lauded for his linguistic dexterity and mind-twisting inventiveness. Still, I recall trudging through the complexity of London Fields, which Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times described as: “A comic murder mystery, an apocalyptic satire, a scatological meditation on love and death and nuclear winter…by turns lyrical and obscene, colloquial and rhapsodic.”
The Long Night of White Chickens didn’t go over well, either.
I haven’t read Martin Amis since that time, until now, with the release of his new book The Zone of Interest igniting a desire to jump in and try again. The novel is described by the publisher as a love story, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s heart-sinking romance. It’s more sexual desire that becomes an obsession that then becomes love never physically requited between a Nazi liaison officer, who is Angelus Thomsen, a self-proclaimed stud, and Hannah Doll. The setting is a German concentration camp called the Zone of Interest (Auschwitz otherwise named), and Hannah is the kommandant’s wife.
Similar to Time’s Arrow, about a Holocaust doctor/war criminal, The Zone of Interest takes the Nazi viewpoint. Chapters alternate between Thomsen, Kommandant Paul Doll and a Sonderkommando named Szmul, who parries with Doll to keep his life steady under the horrific circumstances. Szmul persists in his grotesque Sonder role for three reasons: to bear witness, exact mortal vengeance and save or prolong a life. He’s engaged by Doll to spy on Hannah, whom Doll suspects is having an affair first with Thomsen, and then with the man she loved prior to marrying Doll. Meanwhile, there are mishaps with arriving transports, the selection process and an overload of cremated bodies. Also going on: Thomsen, who is cast as the fictional nephew of Hitler’s secretary, oversees the construction of the Buna-Werke, a nearby synthetic rubber and fuel factory that has its own challenges. Doll and Thomsen wrestle with the politics of “the Deliverer” (you know who, with that silly mustache)
It goes without saying that the Holocaust is grim subject matter, but keep in mind this is Martin Amis, whose signature narrative brilliance and wit is very much in play here, as is the “lyrical and obscene.” Bottom line, The Zone of Interest is a satire, and you have to go into reading it knowing Amis is using humor, exaggeration and ridicule to illustrate, in the extreme, the Nazi crime of the Final Solution. Otherwise, the novel comes across as hugely offensive.
In the beginning, I couldn’t bear it — the sexual banter between Thomsen and his friend Boris, a Waffen-SS colonel, mixed with blithe commentary about transports to the camp, as if they’re in casual, friendly conversation over coffee; the comedic perspective of events surrounding the selection ramp; and Paul Doll ridiculously prancing among his lackeys, as if in scenes from a sitcom. And then the thoughts of the characters, which are hard to take, designed to showcase their idiocy and lack of self-awareness, such as Doll thinking about Szmul and the Sonderkommandos: “You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comment is suppose to make us smile because it’s a reverse onto himself, but the smiling just doesn’t feel good.
Not all is sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Hannah stands firm in her horror of the surrounding reality, and Thomsen attempts to sabotage the progress of the Buna-Werke factory; however, their anti-sympathy is too little to make a narrative impact. And it’s here I think satirizing the Final Solution is an un-winning endeavor, unless it’s so wickedly profound we come away shattered with new insight, which doesn’t happen with The Zone of Interest. It’s not really that great of a love story, either, which prevails, carrying through to the end of the war and the book, with Thomsen’s continued desire for Hannah. But Hannah cannot see Thomsen outside the framework of the inhumanity in which he participated. Their relationship rings true, but it still feels more like a misguided story of desire and not love.
Should I read Martin Amis’s acclaimed Time’s Arrow? Maybe I’ll connect with his fiction in that novel. Why am I not falling down the rabbit hole of that which creates a Martin Amis cult follower? The fellow reader I met at the conference kept a framed photo of Amis and himself on his office desk that was taken at a book signing.
I eventually settled into The Zone of Interest, employing emotional distance and embracing the satire. I understood and marveled at the literary skill, but that one-of-a-kind Amis talent — experienced also in his other aforementioned novels — doesn’t drive me to want to read his books. I don’t get involved in them. Instead, I seem only to experience the brilliant work. I also seem to be chasing Martin Amis, thinking the one Martin Amis book for me is the next one. (Perhaps The Rachel Papers?) At this rate, I’ll get Martin Amis under my reading belt, despite myself.