In Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest (2014), set in a Nazi death camp, the Commander, Paul Doll, has his wife, Hannah, and two daughters living with him in the “zone,” where the smell of rotting flesh from the mass graves functions as a persistent clue that things have gone very, very wrong in the world.
How did the German civilians go about their lives and continue to be human beings in such an atmosphere? That’s the question that must have compelled Amis to write this novel. While no sane person can fully imagine the answer to that question, Amis creates a few plausible stories that people might have told themselves.
In alternating chapters, three first-person narrators give their perspectives. Romantic playboy Angelus Thomsen (aka Golo) opens with a Werther-reminiscent description of Hannah Doll as a German giantess Hera incarnate. A romance in a death camp? Impossible. I almost put the book down; in fact, I did for years, but then last month I picked it back up.
When Thomsen pays a first visit to her house, he notes that Hannah
leaned over and over rummaged in a flowerpot on a low shelf … to tell the truth, in my amatory transactions I hadn’t had a decent thought in my head for seven or eight years (earlier, I was something of a romantic. But I let that go). And as I watched Hannah curve her body forward, with her tensed rump and one mighty leg thrown up and out behind her for balance, I said to myself: this would be a big fuck. A big fuck: that was what I said to myself.
This is how the story begins, but after the first chapter it became clear that Amis wasn’t going to attempt to write about sex or a romance, and I kept going. We find that Thomsen is not a typical Nazi; he is a tweed-wearing civilian liaison between the military and manufacturers, and we learn that he is the privileged nephew of Hitter’s top advisor. That, in combination with ideal German good looks, gives Thomsen the latitude to be optimistic about cuckholding the genocidal fool running the camp. Amis certainly sets a challenge for himself to write about love between “good” Germans in the midst of frenzied slaughter, worsening with every loss in the field, as they spiral out of the moral universe at light speed.
Following a parabolic character arch, Thomsen is soon is too concerned about Hannah to dare think of putting her at risk. His romantic impulse returns (and layers itself upon the lust, which does not diminish). Thomsen’s turning point comes when he happens to be out for a walk and finds Hannah napping in a gazebo. After watching her sleep for some time, he admits, “I felt something happen to the sources of my being. Everything I had waived and ceded made itself known to me. And I saw, with self-detestation, how soiled and shrunken I had let my heart become.” Although Thomsen has “let go” many of the atrocities he has witnessed, he begins to resist his active part in helping the machine run. He is in charge of getting a city-sized factory, for making ethanol and rubber, up and running. When completed, the factory would give Germany self-sufficiency. Though this might not bring victory for the Germans, Thomsen understood it would drag the war out much longer, so he sees to it that one of the British prisoners adds sand to the machinery, a crime for which Thomsen is eventually imprisoned as the war grinds to a halt.
The second narrator is Commander Paul Doll, the Old Boozer, grotesque, thrice “bemedalled (Iron Cross, Silver Wand Badge, SS Honor Ring),” who stood “with his legs absurdly apart, rocking on his heels.” The Commander is dealing with the inconvenient problem that the mass graves his camp has supplied with 100,000+ bodies (before they got the crematory going) are leaching into the aquifers and poisoning the local water supply. He is charged with the task of digging the nearly liquefied remains up and then burning them. It is an engineering problem on a massive scale. But it is his smarter sidekick Szmul, a Jewish inmate, who helps contrive a scooping machine as well as a device to catch the melting fat so that it could be reused as fuel.
Throughout the story Commander Doll is almost always drunk and his main function is to inform newly arrived evacuees that they will be cared for and housed and that they should all undress and go into a shower room for a good delousing. He is aware no one believes him, but he plays his ridiculous part because undressing dead bodies would be difficult and time-consuming. Amis works hard to imagine what sort of struggles such a man as Paul Doll might have, and he tries to locate his vulnerabilities, because even the most evil people have them; they may have more than most, in fact. In a masterfully dark comic scene, Amis reveals that Doll is intimidated by a trainload of well-educated wealthy French Jews who, he imagines, look down on the Germans for the uncouth way in which they are proceeding with their final solution. As the newly arrived prisoners stand on the platform, a truck carrying bodies appears at exactly the wrong time:
Here it came, that wretched, that accursed lorry, the size of a furniture van yet decidedly uncouth—positively thuggish—in aspect, its springs creaking and its exhaust pipe rowdily backfiring, barnacled in rust, the green tarpaulin palpitating, the profiled driver with the stub of a cigarette in his mouth and his tattooed arm dangling from the window of his cab. Violently it braked and skidded, jolting to a halt as it crossed the rails, its wheels whining for purchase. Now it slumped sickeningly to the left, the near sideflap bellowed skyward, and there—for 2 or 3 stark seconds—its cargo stood revealed.
It bothers Doll that the Jews judge him as barbaric, unable to commit genocide in a manner befitting the Aryan nation. We understand that embarrassment fuels much of Doll’s hatred and vengeance.
The third narrator is Szmul, a Jewish prisoner who keeps a diary, which he will bury in a hedgerow near the Commander’s house for historians to find. Szmul and a dozen other men like himself are in charge of ushering the evacuees into the gas chamber, then later dragging the bodies out, searching their orifices for valuables, removing gold teeth and cutting their hair (to be sold for wigs). Every little bit to finance the war effort. The men who perform these services for their captors are called Sonders (special) and are rewarded with extra rations.
Szmul notes, “A hero, of course, would escape and tell the world. But it is my feeling that the world has known for quite some time. How could it not, given the scale?”
Every morning at dawn these witnesses talk with each other, eyes averted. Sometimes they consider warning the evacuees of what’s coming, to create panic on the platform and make the whole process more difficult for the Commander. But in the end, they continue to keep everyone calm so that the terror only last for fifteen minutes once they are crowded into the gas chamber. This is how the Sonders justify not committing suicide. When the new arrivals detrain, the Sonders go through the crowd and whisper to young men telling them to say they have a trade so that they won’t be killed immediately. In this way, they are able to save (or prolong), on average, one life per transport.
The novel is increasingly concerned with the fact that the Germans are losing to the Russians. The term Schadenfreude was never so apt; it describes this reader’s feeling so well. It was satisfying to read about the how the Nazis were realizing that their plans were falling apart under their own horrid weight. As Szmul observes,
A bewildered lull settles on the Lager after the German defeat in the east. It is like an attack—and I admit to bathos—of mortal embarrassment. They see the size of their gamble on victory; the fantastic crimes legalised by the state, they finally understand, are still illegal elsewhere.
Although the first-person is the best narrative device for putting the reader in the character’s head, which is what Amis seeks to do, the three narrators all sound a bit too like Amis, fond of the sonic quality of language, witty, capable of very compact descriptions, and British (Thomsen quotes Auden). Perhaps limited ironic third-person would have been a better choice for Paul Doll, and perhaps for Angelus Thomsen too, to parody their internal dialog and to betray the person’s often self-deluded perspective. But I never suspended my disbelief and was always aware of what Amis was doing with his puppets. He doesn’t portray the thoughts of someone like Doll realistically, but tainted with his judgment. Szmul muses that “Somebody will one day come to the ghetto or the Lager and account for the near-farcical assiduity of the German hatred.” This is, I think, what Amis does very well.
Amis is one of my favorite writers, and I must confess an envious thought or two went through my head as I was reading, Oh sure, that’s a powerful image, both horrible and comical at the same time, but what writer couldn’t write profoundly about such a subject? It’s the proverbial side of the barn. And I also wondered why he doesn’t apply his talent to more contemporary holocausts. Seems there’s plenty to choose from, some ongoing. But Amis has been obsessed with WWII death camps for decades. After Times Arrow (1991), in which Amis made sense of the Holocaust by narrating it in reverse, he wrote the non-fiction book Koba the Dread (2002) which explores that machinations of Stalin’s holocaust. Next Amis gave us The House of Meetings (2007) which further explores Stalin’s atrocities in fictional form. Amis has given us valuable insight that we might use some day. The cattle cars stand in wait for the next time. We humans really do need to learn from history.
I finally chose to return to this novel now, at this time, because lately people have been saying that they are beginning to understand how the Germans could let genocide happen. I can’t help but recognize that, here I am, in November 2021, a good citizen, and this week a 13-year-old girl in my neighborhood, who got the shot, has been in the ICU in a coma, unable to breathe on her own, suffering constant seizures from an autoimmune response, as her own body attacks her nerves and her brain. What did I do to warn her mother? What did I do to try to shut down the pop-up shot clinic at her school? Not enough.
You get used to smells, even bad ones. You don’t notice them anymore; you cannot smell your own scent, except when it changes. When the train arrived at the death camp, there was always the characteristic odour to greet the new prisoners. Doll noticed, “some of our newcomers were sniffing it with upward jerks of their heads.” But they tell themselves it can’t possibly be what it seems to be, and even after they see the rotting corpses in the truck, Amis tells us, they “were utterly incapable of absorbing what they had just seen.”
Genocide is unbelievable, no matter how many time history tries to convince us that it does sometimes happen.
V.N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, 2015, and CoVlD-1984, The Musical, forthcoming