Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
I always thought I loved Amis, but whenever I found his intoxicating sentences pulling me in, as they did in the Rachel Papers and Money, I used to tire of certain traits very quickly. The meandering or nonexistent plot, the confusion, the fact that Amis himself appears as a character once too often (and surely once is too often) and on. But not this week. Not with Zone of Interest. I placed my pre-order before the hype began, before summer began, before the publisher had even given a hint about the plot on Amazon. I literally had no idea it was about the holocaust. If indeed it is.
On seeing the barbed wire, I was intrigued. On seeing the photo of Hitler in the endnotes, my heart skipped a beat. What had old Martin gone and done this time? Famous for being lavishly English, eternally upper-middle class, and the son of a successful and cantankerous national treasure, he comes with baggage, and lots of it. I was afraid for his mind, his reputation, and his career. I was afraid for my own experience as a reader. Nobody writes about Hitler, or religion, without risk. Writing about both at the same time sets up a high wire. Writing about both in the context of a farce, if it is a farce, must surely be suicide.
Martin Amis, let me reassure you, has not committed suicide. Against all the odds, and contrary to all my initial reservations, he has written his best book since the Rachel Papers. It is easy on the eye, lightly flutters through your hands as the tempo settles in, and despite your instinctive revulsion for all things Nazi, lures you into some of our generation’s biggest moral conundrums. Why on earth did they do it? How could they do it, so many of them? This book takes pains not to answer, but you find yourself being asked, time and again.
We meet three viewpoint characters: the commandant of the Kat Zet camps, the nephew of Hitler’s secretary, and a Polish inmate, a Sonder (short for Sonderkommando) called Szmul. Their stories follow each other in a regular pattern throughout the book, but their narratives also interweave. They are all known to each other, and all appear in each other’s accounts. I instinctively worry about these kinds of devices. I don’t like to find two stories hiding in one, never mind three of the damn things. But Amis is a safe pair of hands, and this device is not just for show. It has a very specific set of purposes. Of which I will say no more.
I can genuinely say that if you have never read an Amis, you can do worse than start here. Read the Rachel Papers second, and after that you’re on your own. This book is, remarkably enough, more important than Amis, and more important than many or all the books I have read this year. It is a highlight in a career which is already stratospheric. A genuine achievement, it is thought-provoking and bitterly tragic, yet also a successful comedy. If it is a comedy at all. Your book broker recommends: buy, don’t borrow.
Now that a new edition of the recently out of copyright Mein Kampf is shooting up the charts in Germany, there has never been a better time for Zone of Interest.