At first you don’t know where you are. A man in country tweeds watches a woman in a white dress walking in the shade of trees with her daughters. They pass a windmill, a maypole, gallows. Gallows? And into the Kat Zet. Historians and Amis aficionados might recognize the abbreviation – Kat Zet, short for Konzentrationslager, concentration camp. For you are in Auschwitz, though it is never mentioned by name, where the “hero” of Amis’s 1991 back-to-front novel Time’s Arrow, Odilo Unverdorben, worked as a doctor, “healing” sick Jews.
His new book, The Zone of Interest, has a less radical structure: it takes an epistolary form with alternate chapters written by three different men who work within “the zone of interest”: Angelus Thomsen, a liaison officer and nephew of Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private secretary; Paul Doll, the camp’s Commandant, and Smzulek Zachariasz, one of the Sonderkommandos, the work units of Jews who were forced to fill, operate, and then empty the gas chambers.
On top of this unimaginable abomination, Amis plots a love story. A love story! At first the grotesquery of the juxtaposition is breathtaking. Thomsen lusts after Doll’s wife, Hannah, and tries to work out how best to seduce her, while the other concerns of daily life in an extermination camp – how to get rid of the smell? – occasionally invade the sexual farce.
It’s a foul business, and Amis, who has always written so unflinchingly about corporeality, allows the background horrors to seep up through the clinical dispassion of Doll’s prose. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the humanity creeps in. The madness, the empathy, the terror, the love. The relationship between Thomsen and Hannah turns into something else: something desperate, something defiant, something almost real.
To write about what makes us human in the context of the Holocaust is shocking, as Amis well knows and many critics will know doubt remind him. But the Holocaust was conducted by humans, on other humans, and it is only humans who must continue to fail to understand it. Amis knows this, too.
The Zone Of Interest is available 21 August
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