Christopher Hyland: ‘Literature of Evil – Martin Amis’s ‘Zone Of Interest”
Christopher Hyland was runner up in the 2015 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism for his piece ‘Literature of Evil – Martin Amis’s Zone Of Interest‘, reprinted below.
Literature and Evil: Martin Amis’ ‘The Zone of Interest’
In Brueghel’s painting ‘The Triumph of Death’, an army of skeletons cavorts on a blasted and desolating landscape: over there, the rustic fishpond clotted with filth and corpses; here, the dinner-party ruined, and a lady’s waist is girlded in a grinning stick-figure’s arms; a skeleton ebulliently disports himself with a fiddle. It’s a little fiesta of death, a brutal and wry vignette of the Last Judgment in all its febrile absurdity. It’s terrible and dramatic. It is also, somehow, quite beautiful. It is art.
Auschwitz was not like that: the eschatology begun in 1941 for the Jewish nation was, by comparison, orderly and punctilious, and – this is its terror – of all things, it was boring. A vast bureaucratic machine – enchained by an abstract rage, and at enormous effort and cost, to the detriment of its military desiderata – manufactured the deaths of at least six million Jews, and other categorized unpersons. Their demolition was performed systematically, according to staff numbers and schedules; it was for this reason that Hannah Arendt called Auschwitz a “corpse factory”. A modern, reasoned, diligent production line in combination with a medieval sadism and nihilism and blood-thinking: this toxic compound made the Holocaust singular.
And it’s what makes the Holocaust so difficult to pivot a fiction around. “Hier ist kein warum”, Primo Levi was told on arriving at Auschwitz: here there is no ‘why’. The victims were denied all will; and without the exercise of will, there is no drama. (The accounts of survivors are, by definition, exceptional. Most people were killed quickly, and quickly forgotten.) The Holocaust almost entirely lacks the necessary constituent of the tragic, in the Greek sense – resistance. And this sleepless fact constitutes a major aesthetic problem, whether or not one holds – with Adorno (“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric… It is transfigured and stripped of some of its horror”) – that any artistic catharsis, any explication of the inexplicable, is a historical injustice. Confronting the Holocaust, there occurs an unwilling suspension of belief. It is both unbelievable and true, the obverse of fiction’s more usual metaphysic. Leave morality aside, if we may. What story is there? What redemption, irony, love? What tears can literature bring that history hasn’t already shed?
Martin Amis has spent several decades considering the nature of evil. It feels odd to say that of a comic writer: as though probity must always be solemn and, ex hypothesi, humour must always be frivolous. (Jesus, Beckett realised, was estrangingly laughless.) But, with his little italic licks and bodaciously adverbial prose, with his Dickensian overstatement and Martian outsights (in ‘London Fields’: “The rain made toadstools of the people on the street… Faceless stalks in mackintoshes, beneath the black flowers of their umbrellas…”), with The War Against Cliché and the attempt to make style a sufficiency of content, Martin Amis has long been a lyrical polemicist searching for a moral cause.
In ‘Einstein’s Monsters’, Amis proved that the only thing thermonuclear weapons are a deterrent to is life on Earth; in ‘Koba the Dread’, his strange and brilliant treatise on Stalinism and Martin Amis (with the apercu: “given total power over another, the human being will find that his thoughts turn to torture”), he arraigned modern writers and intellectuals, many of them Martin Amis, for not knowing enough about Soviet mass murders. A collection of essays, ‘The Second Plane’, anatomized the chronically virginal Islamist male and his (therefore) tendentious relationship to reality and the West. After all of which, the Holocaust seems an inevitable subject (no serious person thinks about anything else, as W.G. Sebald wryly remarked). ‘Time’s Arrow’, of course, featured a Nazi doctor but, with the reversal of causality borrowed from Vonnegut, the ironic terror came from its being about the Holocaust not happening, un-happening.
‘The Zone of Interest’ is, superficially, suddenly different from anything Amis has done before. It is told in the form of three narratively-overlapping epistolary monologues: we get Golo, the handsome nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary; Doll, a dumb official at Auschwitz, and Golo’s superior there; and Szmul, a Sonderkommando, one of the group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in killings and disposals. Tenses are utilised carefully. Doll writes a diary. Golo gives a morally and stylistically smoothed account of himself, years after the ending of the war. And over the testimony of Szmul, a Jew, and the novel’s moral centre, the shadow of the future always hangs and the past is literally dead: “I live”, he writes, “in the present and do so with pathological fixity”. That sentence bears some contemplation.
The plot is simple. Golo – despite the scenes of quotidian carnage, in which he plays a reasonably large part – has the hots for Doll’s wife, Hannah; and the vice, as it were, is applied versa. Recalling Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, with its juxtaposition of courtly romantic love and Auschwitz, life for Golo and Hannah seems to badly imitate the French novelists. Ardent letters are exchanged and intercepted. A spyhole is employed by the husband to watch his wife undress. He plots to have the interloper killed (‘A Murder in Auschwitz’ might have been a rather superfluous chapter-title). He fails. Meanwhile, the Red Army is doing its stuff, and Doll’s job has become such a drag.
Doll portrays himself as something of a poor bastard, an apotheosis of mediocrity, squat upon by the toad, work – forced to his daily grind of increasingly anhedonic (but obviously necessary) murdering. He seems, in the shabby lineaments of his mind, the incarnation of Arendt’s judgment on Eichmann: he can barely spell his langue de bois of endless clichés and evil banalities, which come wrapped in Murdochian inverted commas when he thinks he’s being playful. He also, forgivably, has a lot of fun with some of the delicious crudities of the German language: “Titten” and “Arschen” and (accidentally misspelled, for those of us who care about such things) “Brustwarten”. There is one character-slip, when Doll taunts Szmul about his marriage, and asks, “Was it a love whose month was ever May?”. Now: either Doll is better educated than he pretends to be, and can make casual allusions to ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, one of Shakespeare’s most slangy and boring plays (God knows what a nightmare it must be in German translation), or Amis didn’t expect anyone to notice the theft. It is, to be pedantic, not at all in keeping with the character. But Doll’s moral atrophy, really, goes deeper. It inheres in his syntax. In a momentary agenbite of inwit, he acknowledges problems with ‘one’ – “about whether it denotes quantity, or is being used as a … [his ellipsis] ‘pronoun’’’. Doll is clearly a person-manqué. But it is nonetheless he who exhibits some moral disturbance in his gradual physio-mental breakdown, and he who – however nugatory the confession – says before he is hanged, “I have sinned gravely against humanity”. This evolution seems true.
Not so with Golo (or ‘Angelus’). He’s a German Humbert Humbert, intensely stylised and undoubtedly unreliable. “I? I was six foot three. The colour of my hair was a frosty white. The Flemish chute of the nose, the disdainful pleat of the mouth, the shapeful pugnacity of the chin…”, and so on to “the extensile penis” and “calves Michelangelan”. In his own words, Golo was among the “minor obstructors”; by the incidental details of his account, he oughtn’t to have escaped the purview of the Nuremberg Tribunal. Golo’s unreliably sympathetic narration is the most technically excellent thing about the novel. He is, however, responsible for many of the burps of expository indigestion: we are told of “the Baltic lands of Latvia and Lithuania”, and get a paragraph on “The Sorrows of Young Werther, the Goethe novella so beguiling forlorn…”, et cetera. Conversations come garnished with qualms (normally on his interlocutor’s side): “‘You know they pay for their own tickets?’”; “‘I heard that they were killing psychiatric patients in Konigsberg. … To clear bed space. … For all the men who’d cracked up killing women and children in Poland and Russia. I thought, Mm…”.
But these factual snacks only emphasize the fundamental unreality of the novel, and return us to questions we raised earlier. The prose is beautiful, but rarely is the story, or the characterisation, believably possible. These elements are often devalued in Amis, but their loss is somehow felt much more in a Holocaust novel, when a known reality keeps impinging. To say that one narrator is unreliable hardly obviates this necessity. Much of the pathos of ‘The Zone of Interest’ is epiphenomenal: little in the fiction itself, or in the characters’ straining to be real, insists on a reaction from the reader. Rather, such sentiments as the novel arouses belong more to the enormous fact of ‘the concentrationary universe’ than to Amis’ very decent, earnest novel. It is for this reason that ‘The Zone of Interest’ must belie its title.