Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"The Zone of Interest", a novel by Martin Amis

It has been over 20 years since the attention getting "Time's Arrow" was read here, Martin Amis's first novel about the Holocaust.  His intellectual fascination with this almost inexplicably horrific event has apparently not waned since.  "The Zone of Interest" is an impressionistic look at the second rate bunglers and the protected connected ones who were assigned to run the death camps.  It does not offer answers, only a depiction of this random yet highly coordinated tragedy of that time.

To this reader it was obvious at the outset that this was a book that needed to be read in big gulps.  Snippets here and there would never pull one back into it.  There is plenty that is not pleasant to digest, even as there is wit, compassion, and obvious cruelty in this horrible setting.  Amis's writing is sharp and edgy, more alive that it has been in some of his more recent books.  It pulls one forward if one sticks with it and has the inclination to proceed.  Here it was enjoyed even if the perplexing question of "why write this" lingered.

In a closing series of short chapters entitled "Aftermath", one of the main characters cites January 1933, when Hitler assumed power, as "the beginning of the German compromise with sanity".  He later asks "how did a sleepy country of poets and dreamers, and the most highly educated nation the earth has ever seen, how did it yield to such wild, such fantastic disgrace?  What made its people, men and women, consent to having their souls raped--- and raped by such a eunuch...Where did it come from, the need for such a methodical, such a pedantic, and such a literal explosion of the bestial?"

The novel does not answer that question, and essentially concludes in the words of Primo Levi "there is no why here."  As Hitler turns his hatred onto the German people and continues a war that many saw as hopeless as early 1943, ratcheting up the effort to exterminate the Jews and putting the entire German population at the eventual mercy of  Western air power and barbaric Russian ground troops, no armistice is possible, only total defeat.  Hitler is almost inexplicably warped, and still many follow.

For those not enchanted by this topic, it can be suggested that you go to the local library or bookstore and just read the final section mentioned above, "Aftermath", and the Acknowledgement and Afterword:  "That Which Happened" to get a sense of the book and its impact.  That may be a heretical suggestion to fellow novel readers, but these last parts are not trivial.  One would miss some great writing, but still get some benefit from the effort of Amis.    

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