Towards the end of The Zone of Interest are three statements that snag the attention and perhaps explain what the novel, Amis’s 14th, is about. The last comes in the acknowledgements, where Amis accepts that “tens of thousands of volumes” of history cannot begin to explain why the Holocaust happened, and quotes WG Sebald: “No serious person ever thinks of anything else.” Another comes in a sort-of epilogue, the “Aftermath”, in which our hero (or the closest we get to one), Golo, is shouted at in German, and “vaguely and confusedly wonder[s] if the story of National Socialism could have unfolded in any other language”. Before that, one of the most tragic characters in modern fiction, Szmul, tries to record his own story. He writes: “I need something more than words.”
Some critics have asked why Amis has bothered to write again about the Holocaust, having made such a clever job of it in his Booker-shortlisted Time’s Arrow (1991). The Zone of Interest is an odd sort of novel with which to return to the subject. Its publisher describes it as a love story in the most unromantic setting in history. It has been called an office comedy, where the office is Auschwitz. But what stands out is not comedy, and certainly not love, but the ridiculous pointlessness of the whole operation. I wonder if Amis’s intention, in this relatively straightforward novel with some real-life characters thrown in, is to show the inability of language to write about the Holocaust at all.
The novel is narrated alternately by three men, and our first narrator, Angelus (Golo) Thomsen, is the most pointless of all. He is a concentration camp middle-manager, charged with putting Jewish prisoners to work. He is, in German, a “Schreibtischtater. A writing-table perpetrator – a desk murderer”. He says he is in love with Frau Hannah Doll – though the only attributes he ever praises tend to be the likes of her “Titten” und “Arsch”: “the span of the mouth, the might of the teeth and jaws …” A generous explanation would be that even love is being reduced to the gross and bodily by the situation here, but it could also possible be that Amis still can’t write credibly about women.
Hannah is the wife of our second narrator, Commandant Paul Doll – a pompous, sly, petty man who speaks in clichés and quotation marks, refers to himself in the third person and occasionally whinges that the whole Final Solution is being perpetrated just to “cause Paul Doll more difficulties”. At last, Amis has found a fitting role for his standard grotesque: this is Little Keith with power (he even has sweaty, squelchy, cardboard lifts in his shoes); Lionel Asbo on a mission.
Our third narrator is Szmul, who describes himself as one of “the saddest men in the history of the world”. His job is to cajole his fellow Jews to their deaths, to search their bodies for valuables, and to dispose of them in the most efficient way that causes the least offensive smell. His kindest act is to lure a lame boy to a calm place and have him shot in the back of the head.
“I would still plead not guilty,” he writes. “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?”
Yes, this novel is grim. But what is sickening is not the bodies, “the pliers and mallets … the ladles …” It is the euphemisms. The “Little Brown Bower”, where “selections” take place. The “detrainments”. The “Stucke” – “pieces” – corpses, that are such a headache to dispose of. It’s not the professional murderers; it’s the engineers and designers in city suits with clipboards. “Where did it come from,” asks Golo, “the need for such a methodical, such a pedantic, and such a literal exploration of the bestial?”
Amid the banality and bathos of genocide, the occasional, beautiful, classically Amis sentence is devastating. As two people smoke Davidoffs to cover the smell of death, they hear a distant cry. “It was a helpless, quavering chord, a fugal harmony of human horror and dismay.”
I read this once thinking it horrifically brilliant, and Amis’s best novel for years. (It is, though that’s not saying a lot.) I read it a second time asking, but what is the point? The “love” story fails as a raison d’être, and a sudden act of semi-bravery by one character is disappointing, as if the author caved in and just threw in a bit of goodness at the last minute. Nevertheless, it should be read – if only to show the futility of writing about the Holocaust, and the importance of never writing about anything else.