Book Review : The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

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I hadn’t intended to write a review of this book at all……in fact I hadn’t intended to read another Martin Amis book at all………but it has made such an impression on me that I felt I had to write a short piece about it.

I WAS a Martin Amis fan, up to round about Yellow Dog. I gave him another chance with The Pregnant Widow which I rated 1 star on Goodreads and then vowed I would never open a book of his again. A review of this latest novel on the Asylum Blog site made me think again.

In this Amis revisits territory he explored to some extent in Time’s Arrow. The title refers to the area surrounding a large , and unnamed in the book, concentration and death camp somewhere in the Eastern outreaches of the Nazi Empire.

It is also a metaphor for the aspect of human behaviour that Amis wants to explore in the novel. The central question posed here is that of Primo Levi, to whose memory the book is dedicated : Is This A Man?

Amis uses three very different narrators to guide us through The Zone.

Szmul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who are detailed to take arrivals to the gas chambers and then collect together their belongings and dispose of the bodies. He is also, unbeknownst to his captors, keeping a written record of his time there to outlive his now shortened life span . As he says :

‘ I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives  that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour , every minute of human history , you would find no exemplum, no model no precedent.

Martyrer, mucedni, martelaar, meczonnik, martyr, in every language I know the word comes from the Greek,martyr, meaning witness. We, the Sonders, or some of us, will bear witness. And this question , unlike every other question, appears to be free of ambiguity . Or so we thought.’

Szmul is the only hero in the book and Amis allows him to die a hero’s death….it is no spoiler, I think, to reveal that he does not outlive his gaolers.

Paul Doll. the camp leader, is a much more typical Amis creation. Brutal, sodden with alcohol , vain and deluded through Doll we explore the Orwellian language used by the Nazis to describe the ‘ final solution’ as well as the cumbersome noun construction of the German language itself. His already tenuous grip on reality deteriorates as the book goes on. Increasingly he is tortured by his wife’s disdain for him and  the logistics of what he has to achieve :

‘ And mind you, disposing of the young and the elderly requires other strengths and virtues – fanaticism, radicalism, severity, implacability, hardness, iciness, mercilessness, und so weiter. After all (as I often say to myself) somebody’s got to do it……’

In Golo Thomsen , nephew of Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, Amis poses the question how did a nation so cultivated and urbane perpetrate such an horrific crime against humanity?  Speer is mentioned many times by Thomsen in the course of his narrative. In fact as a character, Thomsen reminded me of Jonathan Littell’s narrator in Les Bienveillantes , Max Aue, although I read this weekend that Amis was not an admirer of that novel. Golo is the classic outsider, coldly observing the horror around him whilst taking advantage off what any situation can offer him :

‘It was time to introduce and emphasise my theme.Under the political system that here obtained, everyone had soon got used to the idea that where secrecy began, power began. Now, power corrupts : this was not a metaphor. But power attracts, luckily (for me).was not a metaphor either; and I had derived much sexual advantage to my proximity to power. I wartime, women especially felt the gravitational pull of it; they would be needing all their friend and admirers , all their protectors.’

The Zone Of Interest is a remarkable achievement . It is meticulously researched and movingly and respectfully told and a long-awaited return to form.

 

11 thoughts on “Book Review : The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

  1. Very interesting review, Helen. I’m a novice when it comes to Martin Amis as the only one I’ve read is Money, but there seems to be quite a buzz about this one. Out of interest, what do you think of London Fields? I’ve had in my hand in bookshops but never quite made it to the till..

    • Well it is a long time ago since I read it but I remember liking it a lot ….in fact I liked all his stuff until he went totally off the boil. I think there’s a buzz about this one as it is an unexpected and very welcome return to form .

  2. Liked review and you’ve made me think differently about this. I’d read Lionel Asbo on the recommendation of a friend and I really disliked it. The reviews I read of this weren’t great so I’d been put off by them – but I might have to give Amis another chance now.

    • He was such a brilliant writer in his earlier stuff , Times Arrow and The Rachel Papers stand out for me …….I had v genuinely given up on him….but this is very skilful and very moving

  3. I’m not an Amis fan, but I did enjoy Time’s Arrow, which I thought was very clever and thought-provoking, so I’m interested in his latest on a similar theme. Like other commentators, I’ve seen mixed reviews but encouraged that you say you liked it.

    • I was really surprised at how tender it was in parts ….yes there were the usual Amis fireworks BUT definitely his best work for ( many) years ! It’s funny about the reviews as I had only read positive ones!!

  4. Like most of his fans, I am a little concerned about the trajectory of Amis’s fiction and read reviews of each of his new releases with interest. While I don’t think his recent fare has been amongst his best, I have enjoyed each novel in its own right. Here, though, I really struggled to read it as a Martin Amis novel – for better or worse – it just felt so very different from pretty much anything else I’d read of his. Still trying to make up my mind what I think of it!

    My review: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

      • I have – it makes an interesting comparison with this for obvious reasons. None of his novels since The Information have really grabbed me, but I did enjoy The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo for what they were – this one just sat weirdly with me for whatever reason. Even now I’m not sure why, and reading others reviews is only making me more confused 😉 In theory, the book sounds great but in practice I found it a bit of a drag. I saw Amis talking about it too when he was in the UK and something about the press spiel just didn’t wholly convince me.

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