Review: Martin Amis takes on Nazi love in ‘Zone of Interest.’ Really.

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When it comes to the Holocaust, enough already, sometimes, am I right? Enough art, music, books, museums concerning that outrage of the last century, that crime beyond all crimes, that archetype of man’s inhumanity, etc.

Of course, “enough of the Holocaust” is one of the wrongest things you can say. But the exhaustion is authentic, not only for those who live with direct Holocaust memories but for most anyone who’s looked out at the world for more than a couple of decades. There’s a wall of Holocaust fatigue that has little to do with the atrocity itself and more to do with our inability to respond anew to its artifacts.

The publisher’s note accompanying Martin Amis’ new novel also raised a wee red flag of repulsion: “a searing portrait of life — and, shockingly, love — in a concentration camp.” Really? That’s the pitch? It seems like a lampoon of a pitch.


I first assumed the romance was going to be between starving prisoners, an idea that had a craven, soap-operatic (and nauseating) quality, but the romance turned out to be between Nazis, an idea that has a self-consciously provocative (and still more nauseating) quality. Clearly the love being intra-Nazi is what allowed the publisher to characterize the matter as “shocking” — though who among us would propose that Nazis abjured love? None, really, when it comes down to it; few among us have argued that Nazism equated with asexuality.

No, it’s not shocking, the idea that Nazis fell in love. It’s only shocking to write such a scene with an active gas-chamber, human-extermination backdrop — shocking in the same way a title like “Dead Babies” (the name of Amis’ second novel) is shocking, that is to say, facilely shocking.

Still, settling down to read the novel, accompanied by my standard-issue Holocaust exhaustion and my Nazi love-story repulsion, I found myself curiously disarmed. Where I’d considered Amis’ previous novel, “Lionel Asbo,” completely unreadable and even fairly distasteful, I discovered “The Zone of Interest” to be eminently readable and oddly less distasteful. Amis wasn’t slumming this time, wasn’t dressing up his class privilege in the tough-guy duds of the proletariat. It’s not the first time he’s written about Nazis, who were also featured in the important “Time’s Arrow,” and “Zone of Interest” was more appealing to me than any Amis novel since his early career.


“Zone’s” multiple point-of-view plot unspools in the management class of a concentration camp, where Golo Thomsen, a strapping and oversexed young Nazi whose uncle is Martin Bormann, right-hand man of Adolf Hitler, falls in love with the wife of the camp’s buffoonish, drunken and sociopathic commander, a certain Paul Doll. Thomsen is only half-Nazi, possibly ironically Nazi, engaged in secret acts of subversion; Doll’s wife, Hannah, is also only half-bad, related to evil not by blood or instinct but by a loveless marriage.

Besides Thomsen’s and Doll’s narratives we have brief snatches from the perspective of Szmul, a miserable Sonderkommando. Sonderkommandos were Jewish prisoners forced to do the work of disposing of the bodies of other Jews — men, women and children — freshly slaughtered in the camps. They were also in charge of mining those bodies for items of monetary value, including gold teeth and long hair.

Szmul’s position is all the more unspeakably horrific because he’s lasted freakishly long at his labors: Though most Sonderkommandos lasted but a short time before being killed and replaced by new ones, Szmul’s tenure in his job as head of the camp’s Sonderkommando labor force has been prolonged by the lazy and debauched Doll, who prefers not to have to train up a new deputy.


“[O]f all of these very sad men I am the saddest,” Szmul writes. And we have to agree that no work, in either this world or the imagination, could possibly be worse. Szmul has lost his own sons to the fields of bodies.

Amis achieves a kind of constant, intricate patter of small viciousnesses that makes the characters just real enough, and at the same time just fake enough, for us to keep on reading them, suspended in a kind of “uncanny valley” of prose. And his occasional subtle humor (far more characteristically English than German, but then, this book is clearly the right place for cultural hybridity) within Doll’s and Thomsen’s voices saves “The Zone of Interest” from being maudlin or flat-out exploitative.

Here’s a conversation between Nazi men at one of Doll’s decadent dinner parties, when a silly wife dares to dismiss the dangers (posed to Nazis) of mass Jew extermination by saying “They’re only Jews”:

“’Only Jews,’ Doll sadly concurred (he was folding his napkin with a sagacious air). ‘A somewhat puzzling remark, don’t you think, Professor, given that their encirclement of the Reich is now complete?’

“‘Very puzzling indeed.’

“‘We didn’t undertake this lightly, madam. We know what we’re about, I believe.’

“Zulz said, ‘Yes. You see, they’re especially dangerous, Mrs. Uhl, because they’ve long understood a core biological principle. Racial purity equals racial might.’

“‘You won’t catch them interbreeding,’ said Doll. ‘Oh no. They understood this long before we did.’”

The sly novelty of this exchange is what sustains Amis’ story: Few easy potshots are taken, despite the easily dismissible conceit. (But caution: Close the book on the novel’s last page; leave off reading the “Afterword” lest Amis’ self-congratulatory first-person disquisition sour your aftertaste.)


In the end the novel’s garish pitch turns out to have been its weakest point; the so-called romance is almost a throwaway, more a hook or gimmick than the heart of the matter and frankly less credible than other aspects of this ambitious enterprise.

The strength of the story lies elsewhere, in its willingness to ask basic but still baffling questions about the people who carried out the Holocaust in a way that’s not hackneyed or trite but elegant and subtle. Is madness necessary? What does it look like when a mass murderer rationalizes? How could three squares a day and vigorous calisthenics have been reconciled with sending vast numbers of civilians, including infants and children, to their deaths and then looting their corpses?

“Zone of Interest” is an intriguing, sophisticated effort to understand the daily culture of genocide perpetrators and plumb the personhood of mass killers.

Millet is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming novel “Mermaids in Paradise.”

The Zone of Interest

Martin Amis
Alfred A. Knopf: 306 pp., $26.95