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The Zone of Interest

Jo Carruthers

Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 320pp

On the flyleaf of Martin Amis's new novel, The Zone of Interest is a fairytale that tells of a wizard who created a magic mirror for a king. The mirror showed you your soul, 'who you really were', but the king nor his courtiers can look in the mirror for more than a fleeting glance. The tale concludes: 'No one could.' As a route into the novel, this tale intimates the bleakness that follows and presents as its focus the human soul. In the novel itself, the fairytale is told by Szmul, one of three narrators who relate the workings of a concentration camp at Auschwitz and head of the Jews, the Sonderkommando, who lead their fellow Jews to the shower-gas-chambers. For Szmul, the concentration camp 'is that mirror' with the vital difference that 'You can't turn away'. This Holocaust novel is not, then, just another retelling of barbarous acts but recounts the forced exposure of people to the relentless gaze of their own souls because of their compliance, to different degrees, with mass murder. A second narrator, Angelo Thomsen ('Golo'), a high-level Nazi officer who works on the production of synthetic rubber, identifies Nazism itself as the mirror suggesting that the very ethos of National Socialism exposes the souls of those not just within the stark evil of the camp but throughout Nazi-ruled German society.

Amis plays the storyteller wizard in this novel, denying us any escapism to produce a novel-length parable. The novel opens in a place that could be anywhere with an all-too-familiar romantic drama. Cliches of lightning and thunderbolt, the 'meteorology of first sight', are typical of strange narrative quirks (why leave some words in German and not others?) that foreground fictionality and defamiliarizes, resulting in a page-turner that I couldn't quite get lost within. Its self-conscious fictionality means the novel escapes any claim to know anything about the reality of the concentration camp but conjures other questions, such as: is this an appropriate scene for speculative imaginings? This novel is not merely trying to tell the same story again but if approached as a magic mirror that exposes the soul, it provokes questions about compliance, responsibility, guilt and shame. The third narrator, Szmul, could be too easily categorised as a victim (dehumanized Jew) or as a collaborator (why doesn't he refuse to comply?). By invoking both possibilities but admitting neither, the novel presents a challenge to us not to settle with easy demarcations. Not being able to categorize the three narrators of the novel is unsettling. Holocaust narratives tell of such extreme cruelty that it encourages moral distance: this is not us, not now. But the buffoonery of the Kommandant and the romance narrative of Thomsen invoke a sense of what Hannah Arendt called 'the banality of evil'. Arendt used the term of Adolf Eichmann at his trial as she judged him to be not a sinister monster but someone who had an 'authentic inability to think'. His 'cliché-ridden language produced', she claims, 'a kind of macabre comedy'. Banality - the commonplace, trivial and petty - was a term considered by many to be inappropriate: thoughtlessness describes the domestic annoyance of bins unemptied, not the mass murder of an ethnic people. Controversial as Arendt's claims are, they demand that we do not separate prejudice off to a select group of monstrous people that we decide are not quite human. In Arendt's formulation evil is not out there; its seeds of thoughtlessness are ubiquitous. The figure of the Kommandant of the camp, Paul Doll, embodies this banal evil and its 'macabre comedy'. His obedience to circumlocutionary Nazi 'logic' makes him preposterous. He is laughably gullible and demonstrates a tenuous grasp on reality. Just as risible is the handsome 'tremendous scragger of womenfolk', Thomsen, whose feeble conscience is kick-started by the kind of clichéd romance that fills our TV screens and novels.

Eichmann's obedience may not have been entirely without thought but it was fuelled, as many of Hitler's speeches were, by metaphors of disease and dirt that worked to paint the Jews as a group that needed annihilating. 'It is up to every decent, law-abiding, moral citizen to rid this pestilence and filth from our land and reclaim this country'. So writes not someone in another country, a long time ago, but someone on an English webpage against a Gypsy and Traveller site in Essex in 2011. The demarcating of groups of humans as things that it is ok to get rid of - in fact things that demand, by their very nature, expulsion and eradication - is a first, seemingly mild, step of dehumanizing. The very simple attribution of a metaphor to a person creates a belief that fuels action. This removal of human empathy in calling someone 'pestilence and filth' is both everyday (who hasn't heard or overheard, first hand, similar sentiments?) and, on reflection, chillingly inhumane. So - to cut to the chase - why read a book that is brimming with repulsive attitudes of bigotry and prejudice? Well, there are many good reasons not to. But one reason to pick up The Zone of Interest is its potential function as a mirror that may just help us to glance at our raw, shame-filled souls, to play a part in our attempts to avoid that 'inability to think'.