How Could They?

Martin Amis
Martin Amis; drawing by John Springs

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?…

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