Returning to Auschwitz

In The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis uses brutal humor to contemplate the same atrocity he examined in 1991's Time's Arrow.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

It takes a brave, possibly deranged soul to set a comedy in Auschwitz. It takes fearlessness close to folly to write about Auschwitz at all, although the impulse to comprehend the greatest human atrocity in history—to ensure that it never happens again—has drawn countless writers to the subject, and plenty of warnings about the literary obstacles to tackling it.

Martin Amis isn’t daunted, having now done it twice. Or perhaps that gets it wrong; he is clearly haunted. The 65-year-old novelist, whose last literary effort was Lionel Asbo, a viciously cynical portrait of working-class Britain, returns to Auschwitz a second time in The Zone of Interest, his 14th novel. This book comes more than two decades after 1991’s Time’s Arrow, in which Amis ran history backwards: A mysterious doctor wakes from death, grows younger, and ends up in Auschwitz in a chapter titled, “Here there is no why,” after a line from Primo Levi’s description of his arrival at the camp.

In Amis’s earlier, upside-down Auschwitz, doctors heal the sick, guards give jewelry and other valuables to prisoners, and piles of corpses are dismantled (men on top, babies and children at the bottom) and transported into windowless rooms, where they’re revived by gas pellets. This topsy-turvy reenactment gave Amis the opportunity to reverse atrocities, but it offered no explicit answer to the “why.” So he’s back more than two decades later, inspired this time by the other pressing question: How?

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."

Oddly, for such an audacious writer, Amis resists using the word “Auschwitz” in the novel, and never mentions Hitler by name, an affectation that feels almost superstitious. The camp is referred to as the Zone of Interest, or the Kat Zet—an abbreviation for Konzentrationlager. Amis introduces the reader to it in a way that’s gentle, almost pastoral. Thomsen describes how he was sitting amid a maple grove in midsummer when he first saw Paul Doll’s wife, Hannah: “Tall, broad, and full, yet light of foot, in a crenellated white ankle-length dress and a cream-colored straw hat … she moved in and out of pockets of fuzzy, leonine warmth.” He follows her and her two daughters at a distance, past “the ornamental windmill, the maypole, the three-wheeled gallows, the carthorse slackly tethered to the iron water pump.” Amid the Impressionistic painting of the scene, one of these things strikes a jaggedly discordant note.

Thomsen’s narration hints at his environment’s true nature. “Why would anyone bring his wife and children here? Here?,” he muses. His temporary lodgings are overrun with mice, an early symptom of the pestilence and decay that suffuse the novel. He pays a call to Hannah and she offers him an illicit cigarette in the garden, saying that she finds it helps a bit “with the smell.” Her thought is interrupted by the sound of something borne on the wind: “It was a helpless, quavering chord, a fugal harmony of human horror and dismay. We stood quite still with our eyes swelling in our heads.”

It isn’t until Doll takes over the narration that the Kat Zet is explicitly revealed, in a scene that incorporates both slapstick humor and utter depravity. Doll is greeting a group of camp inhabitants newly arrived from Paris, one of whom, “a little bent old lady,” loudly scolds him for the incoming train’s lack of a restaurant wagon. “All we had were the cold cuts we’d brought with us,” she tells him, indignantly. “And we almost ran out of mineral water!” She’s promptly taken out back and shot by Senior Supervisor Grese, but not before a truck drives past and an accidental gap in its tarpaulin gives the assembled group a glimpse of its load. Thomsen’s friend Boris recalls the scene later, the “starveling corpses. Covered in shit, and filth, and rags, and gore, and wounds, and boils. Smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses.” Doll panics at the prospect of a riot at such a sight, but then realizes that “our guests were utterly incapable of absorbing what they had seen.”

So, in a ghastly way, are the hosts. Amis comes back again and again to the disconnect between the reality of the camp and the blinkered doggedness with which its command conducts its daily business: How could so many people manage to carry on even while registering what was impossible to ignore? (The smell, we’re told repeatedly, is intolerable, even in towns several miles away.) Thomsen obsesses over his infatuation with Hannah, gets drunk with Boris, and goes about ordering “this much cement, this much timber, this much barbed wire,” but he finds himself staring out the window at “the figures in city business suits, designers, engineers, adminstrators from IG Farben plants in Frankfurt, Leverkusen, Ludwigshafen, with leather-bound notebooks and retractable yellow measuring tapes, daintily picking their way past the bodies of the wounded, the unconscious, and the dead.”

Doll, meanwhile, spends his days worrying about budgets, his constant failures to persuade his wife to have sex with him, the zombie-like state of his underling, Szmul, and the practicalities of disposing of the corpses of 102,000 people. It’s in his description of these inconvenient remains that Amis’ gifts as a virtuosically vivid writer are employed to full, rancid effect. “The pieces have started to ferment,” Doll acknowledges, describing rotting body parts discarded in a field known as the “spring meadow.” Later, he suffers “one of those cloacal dreams that all of us have from time to time—you know, where you seem to turn into a frothing geyser of hot filth.” Even further on, he describes the “pieces” as “spitefully massive, uncompromisingly ponderous and unwieldy, mephitic sacs or stinkbombs just raring to explode.”

It’s Szmul, of course, who has no recourse to euphemisms or distractions as he devotes his days to the endless disposing of corpses. His chapters are the briefest, and the most heartbreaking. Szmul’s first sentence invokes a fairy-tale magic mirror that shows those who look into it the essence of their soul—who they really are. No one can stand to look at it for more than 60 seconds without turning away. “I find that the KZ is that mirror,” he says. “The KZ is that mirror, but with one difference. You can’t turn away.” The thought is echoed by all three narrators: Blindness is a solace denied to each of them. “It’s true what they say here in the KL: No one knows themselves,” says Doll. “Who are you? You don’t know. Then you come to the Zone of Interest and it tells you who you are.”

The truth Szmul learns about himself and his fellow Sonderkommando is that “as well as being the saddest men who ever lived, we are also the most disgusting … we are infinitely disgusting and infinitely sad.” The men are offered more food than most, and alcohol, and a warm blanket; in return they lie to their fellow Jews to cajole them into the gas chambers, and then strip their corpses of gold fillings, hair, and valuables. Inevitably, they encounter people they know. Szmul, in one of the book’s most devastating scenes, recognizes his son’s disabled best friend, and escorts him outside to be shot quickly rather than having to suffer a slower death in the gas chamber. It takes him about 20 seconds to die. Being young, Szmul reasons, “there are fewer things to say goodbye to, there is less life, less love (perhaps), less memory needing to be scattered.”

Szmul’s chapters are indelible, made all the more scarring by the simpler language they utilize—a departure from Amis’s more familiarly dazzling cynicism. Elsewhere in the novel, when Amis is conveying the spiritual and moral rot that festers throughout the camp, his fetid descriptions soon become almost numbing: “the flies as fat as blackberries,” the snow that has turned brown, like “the shit of angels,” and underfoot, the “boundless latrine of purplish-brown slime.” Everything is noxious and infectious; every non-human animal in the camp gets sick and dies, from Doll’s daughters’ pony to Thomsen’s cat.

But as gifted an illustrator of the obscene as Amis is, he’s also wrestling with the larger (and uncharacteristically philosophical) question of whether anything good can come from, or even survive in, such a place. Hannah herself acknowledges that the thought of a relationship born there is “disgusting.” Is it also disgusting to write about a romance in Auschwitz, or to write mockingly comic passages about a mentally disabled girl who slips and falls in a field full of rotting body parts? Is it awful to laugh when Doll tells a girl he’s impregnated that she’s “subhuman. Technically, I mean,” and she replies, “Then how come you did me without [one] of them Parisians on?”

It may sound sentimental to suggest that Amis’s outrageously black humor offers a reminder of humanity in a place where it seems to have withered and died. At the same time, the surreally discordant particulars heighten the horror by conveying that characters like Doll and Thomsen are more than caricatures. In The Zone of Interest, there are no mere brainwashed ciphers or bureaucrats with maps and lists. Evil, in this novel, is physical and visceral and literal—and banal. In giving up on the question of why Auschwitz happened—in an afterword, Amis announces a “negative eureka (I have not found it, I do not understand it)”—he has plumbed the how to emerge with a truly appalling discovery: people committing acts of egregious inhumanity, aware that they have no remotely coherent answers or reasons either. And that doesn’t stop them.