No answers to the Holocaust from Martin Amis

Dark humour: Martin Amis has tackled the Holocaust. Photo: Toni Wilkinson Awkward: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis.

Dark humour: Martin Amis has tackled the Holocaust. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Awkward: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis.

Dark humour: Martin Amis has tackled the Holocaust. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Awkward: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST Martin Amis Jonathan Cape, $32.99

A humorous Holocaust novel? Someone has to be joking. But no, Martin Amis has put up his hand to do just that. A glance at the acknowledgements, where scores of books allude to the Nazi genocide, forecasts his inspiration. He touched on it in his 1991 novel Time’s Arrow and many advised him not to write a novel about the Holocaust. So why has he? “Because I care,” he told the ABC’s Tony Jones earlier this year.

The truth slowly dawns when the words “ramp, detrainment, selection” appear on page four. “Smell” and “smoke” follow shortly after in the midst of a passionate discourse from Gilo Thomsen, nephew of Martin Boorman (the chief’s private secretary), on his love (make that  lust) for Hannah, the wife of commandant Paul Doll, who is in charge of the unspeakable happenings at the Zone of Interest, aka Auschwitz.

There you are, trapped. No turning back from Amis’ devilish intent to embed himself inside the perpetrators’ heads and dish their tics and thoughts with horrific clarity. The tone is mocking, which Amis is good at, and is a perfect foil for this novel, told through the eyes of three characters: Thomsen, a womanising German soldier with Aryan good looks; Doll, who is  usually drunk; and Szmul, a Polish Jew forced to dispose of the gas chamber’s dead bodies.

So where’s the humour? Truth is, with the knowledge of the subject buried deep in the senses, it’s hard to smile at Thomsen cracking a joke at Hannah’s curvaceous rump when he is contemplating a request for another 150 women in good condition to test a new anaesthetic. The last batch died.

And no amount of goodwill cracks a grin at Doll’s crude sexual titters at his secretary’s Arsch – “if you hoiked her skirt up tight…” – when he’s ruminating on the physics of pyres and corpses and asks, “why do I write like this, it’s not my style at all” (quite right, it’s Amis’).

From Szmul comes the one redeeming analogy, that Auschwitz is a mirror that “shows not your reflection but shows your soul, who you really are”. That jolts but it’s not enough to slam the brakes on. What is it that keeps the reader going? Sick curiosity mostly, to see how Amis brings it to an end.

The plot is slim, with Thomsen pursuing Hannah, who is intent on driving her husband, Doll, mad in revenge for killing her first lover, Dieter, by withdrawing her sexual favours. Thomsen pitches in and discovers his uncle Martin was responsible. Thomsen’s friend Boris warns him of the danger in chasing Hannah. The gruesome murder of family tortoise Torquil. That’s it.

But the pace hots up when it is clear Germany is losing the war and demands for the disposal of as many evacuees as possible and complaints about the lights from burning carcasses tip Doll into madness. “To be kind to Jews is to be cruel to Germans,” he murmurs in self-vindication. Adolf Hitler is never mentioned but an uncaptioned picture is slipped in (jokingly?) at the end.

What is the author’s intention, then? He says he cares, but what of the readers? To strike fresh horror into their hearts? Disgust, perhaps. As he felt, when those sent to Auschwitz were made to pay their own one-way fares, free for those under the age of 12. In his afterword as to why it all happened, he quotes Primo Levi’s The Truce. There is no answer. “We’re not going to find out why.” And breathes a sigh of relief. A cop-out then.

Comments are closed.