The Zone of Interest, the latest novel written by Martin Amis, is set during the Nazi Holocaust in the most infamous concentration camp in history; Auschwitz. Despite this choice of historical location the novel is, at its heart, a romance; about two people, Hannah Doll and Angelus Thomsen, attempting to kindle their love for one another at the centre of one of the darkest events of the twentieth century. The short fairy tale at the start of the book gives a clue as to what Amis’s central idea for his story is:
“There was an old story about a king who asked his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show your reflection. Instead it showed you your soul…”
It is principally a novel about how looking into the abyss of evil and how we react to it reveals who we truly are, reveals the make-up of our souls; the mirror in this allegorical tale being National Socialism – often simply known as Nazism – the fascistic ideology which eventually lead to the mass extermination of not just Jews, but also people of colour, homosexuals, disabled people, Romani people and anybody who dared to challenge the inhumanity of Hitler’s administration.
The novel is told from three character’s perspectives which alternate within each of the six chapters. The first is the very Aryan-looking Angelus Thomsen who is employed by IG Farben, a chemical industry corporation known for the way in which it assisted the Nazi regime’s genocidal operations. He is in working in and around Auschwitz because he is helping to plan the construction of the Buna-Werke, a factory built by exploiting the labour force of the inmates at Auschwitz III. However, it becomes clear that he is not as sympathetic to the Nazi regime as it may first appear, saying to one character that “When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as prehistoric meat-eaters…” His aims to sabotage the actions of this ideology allow the reader to sympathise with Thomsen and in turn his love story with Hannah Doll.
The second narrative voice is that of the commandant Paul Doll’s, the husband of Hannah Doll. In spite of his important and role in the Nazi killing machine his narration is awash with insecurities, often surfacing in the form of rage, but which he attempts to hide under a thick layer of bureaucracy. In this way it could be said that he is an example of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. Whilst the reader is in his head we constantly observe him making mental notes in a robotic fashion: “Reminder: the lorry, from now on, to follow the more roundabout route north of the Summer Hutts.” However, as the narrative progresses we see Paul Doll becoming increasingly out of control, developing a madness which comes to a head in a final confrontation between himself and Szmul.
Szmul is the last of the narrators and easily the most tragic. He is a sonderkommando, part of a group of Jews who were forced on pain of death to process and dispose of the thousands of corpses produced by the concentration camps. Having to incinerate thousands of dead bodies and grind the bones of his departed Jewish brothers and sisters, his narration voices the stark moral reality of the Holocaust, stating that due to having looked into the heart of National Socialism “something intrinsic to human inter-change has absented himself.” As a result, it is repeatedly said of the sonders that their eyes are dead, so changed are they having gazed at and been part of such horror.
It is through these three intertwined narratives that Amis attempts to explore the difficult question of how much humanity can survive in the souls of people who were so closely involved in the evil of the Holocaust and this is what ultimately makes The Zone of Interest such a worthwhile read.
Image: By SlimVirgin at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons