23 September 2014

Martin Amis’s ‘The Zone of Interest’

There are three British writers whose adult lives, like mine, seem likely to straddle the Millennium: in order of personal preference, Ian McEwan (b 1948), Julian Barnes (b 1946) and Martin Amis (b 1949). Amis’s works don’t always appeal to me – I haven’t read Lionel Asbo (2012) and his roman à clef, The Pregnant Widow (2010) seemed flawed by attempting to put late-thirty year-old heads on early-twenty year-old shoulders. But, like other and far better qualified judges*, I found his latest novel, The Zone of Interest, impressive.

It is mostly set in an Auschwitz-like concentration camp, Kat Zet, (KZ, Konzentrationslager) in 1942/43, the period when the Red Army at Stalingrad began to roll back the Nazi advance. Events are seen in alternating succession through the eyes of Angelus Thomsen, a young, well-connected middle manager with the contractor IG Farben, Paul Doll, the camp commandant and Szmul, head of the prisoners who dispose of the bodies. Thomsen, an experienced womaniser, falls in love with Doll’s wife, Hannah. The novel ends with an Aftermath covering the years to 1948. It is clear from the Acknowledgments and Afterward: ‘That Which Happened’ at the end of the book, that Amis has an extensive knowledge of the authoritative Third Reich and Holocaust literature (his first Kat Zet novel, Time’s Arrow, was published in 1991).

The reader of The Zone of Interest is not spared the Holocaust’s “horror, its desolation and its bloody-minded opacity”, nor should they be. However, it is, inevitably, a far from easy read. Some reviewers have called it a satire, others a black comedy and no doubt technically they are right, but it’s far from Catch-22. Amis chose to let Doll, a particularly crooked timber who had been a Nazis since the 1920s, use German words in frequent references to female anatomy but to grotesque effect rather than comic. It seems unlikely to pose a problem in translating the novel to German, because, according to the New York Times, Amis’s usual publishers in France and Germany, Gallimard and Carl Hanser Verlag, have turned down The Zone of Interest. However, Calmann-Lévy, part of the Hachette group, has plans to publish for the autumn of 2015. French readers may find it unsettling that as early in the book as Chapter 2, the first transport to be described arriving at the camp is from Paris.

However revolting the activities of the self-styled Islamic State (IS, or ISIS or ISIL) may seem, Amis’s book is a reminder that they have, so far, been small violations by comparison with the Third Reich’s atrocities. Its publication in the UK is fortuitously timed. The British Museum will be showing Germany: Memories of a Nation from next month until January. In a FT Weekend Magazine interview with the BM’s director, Neil MacGregor, Simon Schama observes:
It is just because the public’s general knowledge of German history, such as it is, is so dominated by one immense and hideous narrative – that of the Third Reich and the Holocaust – that MacGregor wants to open minds to something broader and more complex. Those horrors he calls – provocatively – “extraordinary historical anomalies”. What he wants to present to the listener and the visitor to the exhibition is, rather, a strikingly under-determined national identity – one not, from the beginning, driving inexorably on the Autobahn to annihilation.
The Royal Academy has a retrospective until December of the German painter Anselm Kiefer (b 1945) whose work “wrestles with the darkness of German history”.

Anselm Kiefer, Nothung 1973
Tate Modern from October to February will be showing Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010:
Polke [b 1941] grew up at a time when many Germans deflected blame for the atrocities of the Nazi period with the alibi, ‘I didn’t see anything’. In various works in the exhibition, Polke opposes many Germans of his generation’s tendency to ignore the Nazi past, as if picking off the scab to reopen the wound.
And in October the reconstructed documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, will be released as Memory of the Camps. Supervised by Alfred Hitchcock and drawing on film shot in the camps during liberation, it was pulled from distribution after the war for political reasons, a story told in another new film, André Singer’s Night Will Fall.

* Just for example: Alex Clark in the Guardian, Alex Preston in the Observer, Rebecca Abrams in the FT, Wynn Wheldon in the Spectator, JoyceCarol Oates in the New Yorker.

(Post amended on 27 September to include Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern and Nothung)

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