Martin Amis has set a love story in Auschwitz. More precisely, among the SS staff of the camp and their wives. He makes no apology for doing this—who would expect it of him, and why should he?—but neither does he explain his choice. This leaves the reader to do his or her own mental exercise and, after following this carefully planned novel from beginning to end, to sort through interesting possibilities.
Did Amis site his story in the “anus mundi” simply to shock or to provoke—“love among the gas chambers”? Certainly not; there’s always a melancholy seriousness beneath his most Rabelaisian and gaudy caricatures, as there is with most satirists, and here, as in his other “political” novels about totalitarian cruelty, he has laid much of his caricaturing aside. On the other hand, Amis may have found the challenge to his virtuosity as a writer almost irresistible: Is it possible to write about love and subtle tenderness shared by the overlords of such a gigantic hell without the fiction melting in the heat, losing credibility, and collapsing into the pit beneath? (It is possible, but I am not sure that Amis has managed it here.)
Then there’s another question. To put it coarsely, is this primarily a novel or is it an account of historical horror mounted in the form of a fiction in order to spread its message? Subjectively, there’s probably no either-or. The motives of writers don’t separate themselves to lie neatly above or below a line on a screen. Amis’s story of Angelus Thomsen and the commandant’s wife is complex, always unexpected, sometimes vile, sometimes moving—in short, a story that has strong life of its own and is not primarily constructed to make documentary information more palatable. At the same time, there’s no mistaking either Amis’s passion to set down in clear print the smallest and most horrible details of the Final Solution or his angry conviction that those details are not well known.
They are much better known than he thinks, however, and the same could be said about his writings on the theme of the gulag and other Soviet atrocities. By the time he composed House of Meetings (2006), for instance, about a love triangle set in a gulag, the generation of fellow-traveling intellectuals who underplayed the crimes of Stalin and his successors had almost passed away, and those crimes were being taught to schoolchildren throughout Europe and North America.
For The Zone of Interest, Amis has done a great deal of research and reading, including at least one careful visit to Auschwitz itself. Some of this work pays off in shocking and accurate detail of the three vast Auschwitz camps and their routines. Some, though, emerges as thinly fictionalized history lesson, much of which readers will have already learned:
Boris shook his head with a kind of admiration. “He can’t win against Russia. So what’s he do? He declares war on America. It isn’t a criminal regime, dear. It’s a regime of the criminally insane. And we’re losing.”
But to mention detail is also to notice a curious technique that Amis uses throughout the novel. A clumsy way to describe it would be “distancing through inaccuracy.” His accounts of how victims were treated at the three main camps on the Auschwitz site—the “selections,” the gassing and cremating, the tortures, the conditions of slave labor at the Buna artificial rubber plant—all correspond to the evidence of survivors and documents. But he does not anywhere write the word “Auschwitz” or the name “Adolf Hitler.” And when it comes to the SS staff and their dialogue and relationships, there are all kinds of small distortions that can only be deliberate. SS officers hold ranks that no longer existed; there are sharp grammatical faults in the German usage; the “Canada” hangar in which the possessions of the murdered were sorted becomes “Kalifornia”; the vicious sadist Irma Grese (eventually hanged by the British) becomes “Ilse” Grese, and so on.
It’s true that these changes will only be noticed by readers who know well the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and by those who know German. But in view of Amis’s fame and popularity, that minority will add up to a great many readers. So it makes sense to ask why he is manipulating facts in this apparently inconsistent way, since his research plainly left him familiar with the record of names, titles, and words.
Here a recent book is helpful. Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction provides many examples that illuminate what Amis is doing.* But at the core of her work is a grappling with the pronouncements of Eli Wiesel: “There is something priestly about Wiesel’s insistence in guarding the Temple against those who would desecrate it, but there is also something totalitarian about it.” She is up against Wiesel’s resonant, intimidating declaration that a novel about Auschwitz is either not a novel or not about Auschwitz.
Martin Amis also resists that warning. In an interview with the Financial Times last year, he said:
I respect the view that you shouldn’t write about it but I don’t agree with it. Writing is about freedom, and freedom is not divisible. And it makes no philosophical, and certainly no literary sense to say that you stop at the gates of Auschwitz and you can’t go in.
Nonetheless, it would seem that he blurs some facts about Auschwitz in order to confirm that he is writing a novel, and Franklin’s book shows that he is far from the only novelist to do this. Piotr Rawicz, for example (in Blood from the Sky, 1961), also concealed names and titles behind euphemisms and initial letters, and there are other similarities. Above all, the central figures in the two novels seem to resemble each other in the “amoral objectivity” with which they regard their awful surroundings, in their predatory hunts for sex, and even in their physical appearance.
Rawicz’s “Boris” is “very thin and very straight,” good-looking with thick flaxen hair, and is attractive to women. He affects a brutal indifference to the horrors around him, as when he watches the gang rape of a Jewish woman by German soldiers:
The magnitude of the rape flowed between the woman’s spread-eagled legs without her making a sound. A dumb show. Like gashed statues, thought Boris, whom the amiable Corporal was inviting to share in the general merrymaking.
Amis’s “Angelus Thomsen” (“Golo” to his friends) is six-foot-three, his hair already “frosty white” in his thirties, his body “Michelangelan,” and “to round out the panoply of these timely and opportune attractions, my arctic eyes were a cobalt blue.” At Auschwitz III/Buna, he coldly insists to SS colleagues that Jewish prisoners are there to die as well as to work.
The Zone of Interest opens with love at first sight. A midsummer late afternoon; an avenue of maples; a sturdy, beautiful woman walking back with her daughters from “the Old Town” to “the Zone of Interest.” Thomsen, a mysterious “liaison officer” who is the nephew and almost the adopted son of the mighty Martin Bormann, is pierced by the sight of her. “Teasingly circled by her children she moved past the ornamental windmill, the maypole, the three-wheeled gallows….” It’s only now that we begin to guess that the Old Town and the Zone that borders it may share the name of Auschwitz.
The woman is Hannah Doll, the wife of the camp commandant. Her husband Paul, utterly loyal to “the Chief” and to Nazi ideology, is a dreary little brute. In many ways, including his furtive affairs with helpless female prisoners, he bears a resemblance to the historical Rudolf Höss, the most notorious commandant of Auschwitz who was hanged next to the gas chambers by the Poles in 1947. Doll is a booze-fuddled, conceited bureaucrat increasingly haunted by doubts he refuses to confront:
If what we’re doing is good, why does it smell so lancingly bad? On the ramp at night, why do we feel the ungainsayable need to get so brutishly drunk?…I must shut down a certain zone in my mind.
Hannah, much younger than Doll, married him before the war on the rebound from her Communist lover Dieter Kruger. Now disgusted and repelled by her husband, she lives with her daughters in the luxurious Commandant’s House, served by a staff of prisoner maids and gardeners. The shots and screams from the camps across the fence are distant. Only the stench from the great crematoria in Auschwitz II/Birkenau, their chimneys belching black smoke and flame by day and night, is always present.
The camp staff (its numbers varied between four and over six thousand) had a rich social and cultural life: receptions held on Nazi anniversaries, theater productions, concerts, birthday parties. Golo Thomsen combines his job—organizing a new camp for a labor force at the Buna plant—with his pursuit of Hannah through this unreal world of lavish food and drink amid mass starvation, where the strains of invited orchestras drown the baying of dogs and the shots.
Hannah finds Thomsen interesting, but at first fends him off and keeps him at a distance. Gradually, though, they become aware that they both have dangerous reservations about the Auschwitz world. Nazi women are not supposed to smoke, but she lets him light a cigarette for her: “It helps a bit with the smell.” Then, standing in her garden, they hear the sudden, immense wail from a “transport” of Jews confronted with imminent death. Golo and Hannah stay silent, but they are reading each other’s thoughts. Later, growing more confident, Hannah asks Golo to find out what happened to her lost lover Dieter, arrested as the Nazis came to power and vanished without trace.
Thomsen’s best and lifelong friend is Boris Eltz. Both men are now in their early thirties, and their talk about the war, sex, and the daily massacres around them is callous. Boris is what Germans call a Haudegen: hot-headed, pugnacious, and swashbuckling. An officer in the Waffen-SS on the Russian front, he has been posted to Auschwitz as a punishment for hitting a senior officer. Boris is cynical about the Nazi regime. But—at this stage in the war, in 1942—he still believes in German victory and finds his spells of duty on “the ramp”—herding trainloads of victims toward the gas—not so much horrific as rather unpleasant. And he too is in love, but with a prisoner: a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl from Slovakia working under the bullwhip of “Ilse Grese.” Esther is tough and recklessly defiant, and Boris repeatedly has to use influence or bribery to rescue her from death in a gas chamber or starvation cell.
The other main character in the novel is Szmul, a Polish Jew who is in command of the Sonderkommando (the prisoner unit whose job was to urge the incoming victims into the gas chambers, and then dispose of their corpses in giant cremation furnaces or by burial). The members of each Sonderkommando would themselves be killed after a spell of duty. Szmul and his doomed comrades try to save one or two from each transport (“say you are eighteen, say that you have a skill”). But they know that they are both victims and perpetrators, at once witnesses to murder and involuntary murderers. With Szmul’s reflections, Amis brings the terrible facts that he so clearly needs to write about into full harmony with his fiction.
Szmul is very capable. Commandant Doll relies on him to supervise a particularly awful task, ordered by Berlin: the exhumation of tens of thousands of decaying corpses from a burial field and the construction of a permanent outdoor pyre to burn them. But as time passes, Doll grows fascinated by Szmul: he pays him drunken visits and taunts him by letting him know the exact date of his execution. In the end, Doll begins to contemplate a final revenge on Hannah (whose betrayal he finally discovers) for her increasingly “defeatist” outbursts in public, for her attraction to Thomsen, which has become all too obvious to Doll, and for the open contempt she shows him as a husband.
Outside the barbed wire fences, the Third Reich itself is starting to tremble and bow on its foundations. Friedrich Paulus and the Sixth Army are surrounded at Stalingrad, and loyal prattle about “Ultimate Victory” begins to sound shrill. In the commandant’s villa at Auschwitz, Hannah is moving from silent contempt to active, eventually violent humiliation of her husband, who appears one day with two black eyes (presented as an accident with a shovel in the garden). And Thomsen, at the slave labor camp for Buna, is covertly plotting what amounts to high treason to the Reich.
As a character in a fiction, Angelus “Golo” Thomsen is not easy to construe. Amis has, I think, tried to reconstruct a plausible right-wing German who went along with Hitler’s “national revolution” up to a certain point—perhaps accepting its promise to reverse the Versailles Treaty or to root out Bolshevism, maybe even its intention to challenge “Jewish plutocracy” in Germany—but who was then alienated by the regime’s blood tide of criminality. There were many such people in the Third Reich. Some of them, after all, served loyally on the battlefronts and then attempted to assassinate Hitler.
But Thomsen is not quite convincing as an invention. He takes the decision to work for the downfall and defeat of the Reich by ensuring that Buna will never produce the artificial rubber Germany needs to carry on the war, and he does this by encouraging a British officer-prisoner on the site to organize widespread sabotage. But little has prepared the reader for this startling turn. Thomsen’s conversations with Boris and others about the war and the Final Solution show only a debonair nastiness (dialogue to which Amis gives a flavor that is upper-class English rather than German). Thomsen writes a long letter to Hannah in which he tells her that the Nazi regime had destroyed his soul—“how soiled and shrunken I had let my heart become”—until he met her and found hope. Sincere, or just part of his coldly calculated tactics to get her into bed?
At Buna, Thomsen blocks a plan to raise productivity by reducing the lethal pressure on Jewish slave workers: he does so by reminding the SS authorities that the Jews are there to be exterminated as well as to labor. Is this a devious plan to slow down Buna’s development, even at the cost of Jewish lives? All that is clear about Thomsen’s inmost feelings is his unfulfilled passion for Hannah, an attachment that starts as soldierly lust (“I said to myself: This would be a big fuck”) and ends in helpless and unconditional love.
The Zone of Interest (one of the Nazi euphemisms for the closed area surrounding Auschwitz) is built around one of Amis’s most complicated and unexpected plots. The destinies of Thomsen and Hannah, of Boris and his Esther, of Commandant Doll and the ragged but unconquerable Szmul, are all plaited into a converging pattern that resolves itself on a bloody Walpurgis Night in 1943. Events in the story that seem imminent are cunningly deferred, as Amis switches from one narrator to another.
This tension is heightened by uncertainty about whether the novel’s characters mean what they say, and by the suspicion (which Amis often leaves without confirmation or denial) that the speaker may be miming an opinion to hide its opposite. As Doll’s SS comrades at a drunken party denounce the Jews and their plots for world dominion, Hannah also abuses them: “They promise you the earth, all smiles, they lead you down the garden path. And then they strip you of everything you have.” But Thomsen, listening, senses that it is not really “the Jews” that she is talking about. She could be hinting at the handling of the victims on their way from the trains to the gas chambers. But she might well be thinking of the Nazi regime itself.
As master of a brawny English tradition in satire—those figures in Gillray’s or Rowlandson’s cartoons who guzzle, swill, and thrust fat hands up skirts or into bags of gold—Martin Amis finds targets for comic caricature even at Auschwitz. Commandant Doll is a preposterous figure: lecherous and alcoholic, obsessed with his own self-image as “a normal man” of mighty virility. Respected by nobody, he makes drunken speeches about The Cause that reduce his staff to suppressed laughter. He is a joke. But a uniquely bad joke, who can order the death of a man or a woman or of thousands at a moment’s notice.
Amis has tried hard, and with some success, to enter the mental world of Nazis and of averagely patriotic Germans during and after the Third Reich. He is aware of their extraordinary (and enduring) tunnel vision, that mind-set of national self-pity that finds it so hard to equate the sufferings of other peoples with those of Germany. In the novel, Boris Eltz and Thomsen himself end up appalled by Nazi crimes, but their empathy with the actual Jews, Russians, and Poles going to their death around them every day is limited. It is the fate of Germany, of people they know and love, that concerns them as the defeat of the Reich begins to appear increasingly possible. The pair of them look at the crematorium flames lighting up the night sky, and comment with (again, inimitably English) understatement. “‘An unsympathetic observer,’ said Boris…‘might find all this rather reprehensible.’ ‘Yes. Could make it look quite bad.’”
They are both educated, intelligent, and, in Thomsen’s case, well-read men. And yet it apparently takes the thought that Germany is losing the war to make them focus on the monstrosity of what is happening in front of them. Never mind mere human feelings: How could anybody with normal wits and any degree of free choice accept a share in running Auschwitz? But here, perhaps, there is a writer’s problem, and not only for Martin Amis.
A story requires self-knowledge and the capacity for moral reflection in at least some of its characters. Novel and movie fiction about Auschwitz and the concentrationnaire world almost always imputes intelligence to some of the perpetrators, as well as to the victims. But the historical truth is not like that. To draw on my own experience reporting the 1965 Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, I found that none of the defendants corresponded to the sexy, sophisticated, nihilistic image of an SS officer so adored by French and British filmmakers. An assortment of dissimilar types, they all shared one trait: they were unbelievably stupid. Some were uncomprehending beasts from the pit, but others were simply boneheaded “respectable” men genuinely unable to grasp the implications of what they had been doing.
It’s hard to interest readers in the inwardness of men and women whose inwardness was the size of a peanut. And although this is an issue Amis doesn’t take up, it’s almost impossible to imagine the sheer ignorance of ordinary Europeans about their neighbors and the outside world in the 1940s. Few people had traveled. Around Germany was a ring of stereotypes—flea-ridden Polacks, unmanly Italians, treacherous Froggies—and beyond that Yankee millionaires and then the cannibal islands.
No writer can tackle Auschwitz, in fiction or fact, without at least raising the invariable first question: How could they? How could men who wore clean shirts, followed football in the evening paper, and sent birthday cards to their moms plan and carry out…this? How do you explain Hitler? Martin Amis doesn’t take the line that the Jewish Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps are a sort of “black sun” into which human beings cannot look. You can look, and you must, even though the answer is not yet forthcoming.
Primo Levi, quoted in Amis’s moving afterword, wrote that “perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.” But Amis shrewdly sees that this retreat from the “why” leaves open the “how”—the search for the truth in details that slowly, and in the end, may unlock the inner question.
Angelus Thomsen and Hannah both survive the war, and meet again in a sunny Bavarian park. Thomsen wants them to renew the love that grew between them at Auschwitz. But Hannah refuses. “You and me. Listen. Imagine how disgusting it would be if anything good came out of that place.”
Szmul, now long dead, told himself that the camp was a magic mirror in which you see yourself as you really are, an unbearable vision from which you can’t turn away. Martin Amis seems to say that those who have faced that mirror can never love themselves again—or find love with anyone else.