Amis does this by making the framework of the novel a petty love triangle set inside the petty office politics of a death camp. Only an author of Amis’ acumen would have the writing chops to pull off something so outlandish. The novel’s chapters alternate between a variety of characters’ perspectives – the main ones being the two men caught up in this love triangle: Angelus Thomsen, a mid-level Nazi official in the death camp, and Paul Doll, the camp’s alcoholic and impotent commandant. The woman caught in the middle is Doll’s young wife, Hannah. The sheer triviality of the two men’s braggadocio and posturing over Hannah gets amplified to comic proportions, but Amis does this for a particular reason. What we hear around the margins of Thomsen and Doll’s suffering hearts is real suffering – the sound of thousands of Jews being put to death all around them. The great paradox is that because Amis pushes these voices to the periphery, we hear them all the more vividly:
That last word was still on her tongue when we heard something, 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. I could feel my body clench itself for more and greater alarums. But then came a shrill silence, like a mosquito whirring in your ear, followed, half a minute later, by the hesitantly swerving upswell of violins.
To be fair, The Zone of Interest does open with a disappointment – that is to say, it doesn’t possess the kind of breathtakingly singular opening we’ve grown accustomed to with a Martin Amis book. Is there any other writer today who knows how best to begin a novel? One only needs to read the first 500 words of Time’s Arrow, or Money, or The Information to see Amis’ immense aplomb for opening salvos. But The Zone of Interest's first page lacks this kind of immersive quality. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the story to establish its hyper-satiric parameters. By page 25, we get this bit from Doll’s perspective, a boilerplate performance he puts on for the Jews arriving by train to the death camp. There is something very Arbeit macht frei about the tone of his deception here to innocent people he is about to lead to their deaths:
“Greetings 1 and all. Now I’m not going to lead you up the garden path. You’re here to recuperate and then it’s off to the farms with you, where there’ll be honest work for honest board. We won’t be asking too much of that little young’un, you there in the sailor suit, or of you, sir, in your fine astrakhan coat. Each to his or her talents and abilities. Fair enough? Very well! 1st, we shall escort you to the sauna for a warm shower before you settle into your rooms. It’s just a short drive through the birch wood. Leave your suitcases here, please. You can pick them up at the guest house. Tea and cheese sandwiches will be served immediately, and later there’ll be a piping hot stew. Onwards!”
It’s not merely our recognition of the gas chambers that makes this anti-comic passage so harrowing. It is the intonation of Doll’s subterfuge (required, necessarily, to prevent revolt there on the train platform); it’s the ironic allusion to Marx (“Each to his or her talents and abilities …”); it’s the specificity of his lies (“tea and cheese sandwiches” – such exacting detail); and it’s the implication that this is the beginning of something great for these people (“Onwards!”) rather than their grisly, barbarous end.
Of course the chief barbarian in this slaughter, Adolf Hitler, is never mentioned by name in the novel itself (Amis does name him, naturally, in his detailed afterword); he is rendered phantom-like through a series of euphemisms, and this absence lends another absurd quality to The Zone of Interest’s fictive world. The hyper-satire never wavers: the novel is rich in historical detail while still loyal to its cruelly comic diegesis; and the unspeakable-ness of Hitler’s name helps to define the boundaries of these Nazis’ self-awareness as they enact the 20th century’s greatest crime.
Martin Amis has made a habit of annoying or confounding critics with his unflinching ability to inhabit the minds of abhorrent characters, and he just can’t seem to score a break when it comes to reviews. Most critics, indolent in the face of objectivity, take shortcuts by labelling him a misogynist, sadist, or worse – not realizing that they’re constantly holding his novels to a higher standard than others because they don’t like the characters who occupy them. But readers should ignore the mostly negative reviews this novel has been getting. We should read The Zone of Interest with an eye for its caustic panoramas on evil, human morality, and the very language of fiction itself. The master is once again at the top of his form.