The Zone of Interest is a strange book, indeed; a grim satire, part office comedy, part romance, part lyrical dissection of civilization gone very, very wrong (the sky over the camp one day, we are told, is “a vulgar dark pink, the color of café blancmange”); part visceral, oozing, pestilent horror. The comic interchanges are no less funny for being interspersed among the brutal renderings of depravity, but they do, conversely, make that horror even more jarring. They also remind us of our most basic and familiar impulse when faced with the bleak despair of existence. Amis isn’t making Auschwitz funny—he’s making it human.
The novel weaves between three different narrators. Angelus “Golo” Thomsen is a womanizing “desk murderer” with Aryan good looks who has a clerical position at the camp, but whose Uncle Martin (later revealed to be Martin Bormann, Hitler’s powerful private secretary), grants him a degree of privilege beyond his rank. Paul Doll, colloquially known among officers as “the Old Boozer,” is the ghastly, sociopathically pompous commander, styled after Rudolf Höss and very much in the model of the classic Amis grotesque (his “spongy red chest hair is dotted with beads of sweat”). The last voice belongs to Szmul, one of “the saddest men in the history of the world.” As a Sonderkommando, one of the Jews charged with disposing of the remains of murdered prisoners, Szmul justifies his brazen ability to go on living by listing his three motivations: to bear witness, to seek revenge, and to save a life, “at the rate of one per transport.”
Amis spoke about the idea of Auschwitz as a “mirror of the soul” in a recent interview:
[Y]ou say that Auschwitz, that experience, would tell people who they were. Could you talk about that?
It’s actually a terrifying notion that many survivors say. It’s a real theme of survivor testimony, which is often of astounding quality. Amazing eloquence. But they all said that during peace and civilization you only ever see 5 percent of someone’s character. And you should dread seeing it all, because you find out whether you’re brave, adaptable, determined, immune to despair, and that sort of thing. That’s for the victims. And for the perpetrators, you find the terrible potentialities … But the banality of evil, Robert Jay Lifton said the best thing about that: “Well, they might have been banal when they started out, but they weren’t banal once they started killing people.”
In a review, Ruth Franklin pronounces Amis more a master of words than concepts:
Amis is one of the most inventive users of language currently at work in English — his sentences cannot help crackling — as well as a uniquely talented satirist. But when it comes to the deeper problems of the Nazi pathology that gave rise to the jargon he so brilliantly parodies, he does not have much to offer. Is the brutal Paul Doll correct in his repeated insistence that he is “completely normal”? Is Golo Thomsen, as he claims, one of “hundreds of thousands . . . maybe millions” of Nazis who passively tried to obstruct the regime? Was Auschwitz truly a mirror of the soul that reflected people as they really were? Such questions may be unanswerable. Still, a novel that raises them should at least make an attempt at grappling with them.
But, in a damning assessment, Michael Hofman finds even Amis’ style overwrought:
It elicits not one but both types of unwelcome reaction from the reader: both the ‘so what?’ and the ‘I don’t believe you’ and sometimes both together, as in many of the weather sentences (in The Zone of Interest the weather ends up having to stand in for reality). ‘The grey sky went from oyster to mackerel’: it’s a pretty notion and catchpenny-clever, but really not. The big and medium-sized things in it – the vision thing – almost completely don’t work. At one stage, Thomsen writes:
I walked on for another ten minutes; then I turned and looked. The Buna-Werke – the size of a city. Like Magnetigorsk (a city called Sparkplug) in the USSR. It was due to become the largest and most advanced factory in Europe. When the whole operation came on line, said Burckl, it would need more electricity than Berlin.
I can’t be persuaded here that anyone is seeing anything. First the stray Soviet comparison (and – mainly authorial – explanatory, as it were, self-basting gibe), then the slither (‘due to become’) in time, then the switch of person to Burckl. There’s nothing here, not even a placeholder, a piece of cardboard with ‘Forest’ on it. Or take a swank Berlin government room in 1942 or 1943: ‘The air was full of tobacco smoke and existential unhappiness.’ Surely not! One might as well say it was full of low-hanging zeugmas. I can’t imagine a contemporary speaker (‘I liaise’ or not) for these lines from a departing train: ‘And now Berlin started off on its journey, westward – Friedrichshain with its blocked sebaceous glands and pestilential cafeterias, the Ahnenerbe with its skeletons and skulls, its scurf and snot, the Potsdamer Platz with its smashed faces and half-empty uniforms.’ They are just magniloquent and omniscient like any other third-generation synthesised Isherwood.
Reviewing the book last month, Joyce Carol Oates also found Amis’ style an awkward match for his subject:
“The Zone of Interest,” like “Time’s Arrow,” focusses upon the vicissitudes of personality and situation, and does not take up such larger questions, except fleetingly. The author’s rage at Holocaust horrors is portioned into scenes and sentences; it does not gather into a powerful swell, to overwhelm or terrify. Is it inherent in postmodernism that, no matter the subject, such emotions are likely to be held at bay? “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” as Melville declares in “Moby-Dick”; but such mightiness may be precluded by a mode of writing whose ground bass is irony rather than empathy. In the afterword, Amis cites the famous passage in Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoir in which Levi asks a German guard, “Warum?,” and is told by the guard, “Hier ist kein warum”—“There is no why here.” Perhaps that terse reply is the only adequate response to all questions of “Why?” relating to the Holocaust.