Splashing through the Puddles
I read The Zone of Interest straight through twice from beginning to end and it feels like I’ve read nothing at all. I could read it again, if I thought it would make any difference. Perhaps in some strange way it’s a compliment to the book – this love story set among Germans in Auschwitz: good idea? waiting world? story whose time has come? yes? – or to its calculation, its finely calibrated scales, that what survives of it is (pace Larkin) nothing. That nothing finally preponderates, no sensation remains, no vision, no synthesis, no understanding. Amis has made everything somehow ‘come out even’: the historical substrates of the book (Wannsee, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Nuremberg, all alluded to) and its flimsy fictional superstructure; true extermination and flip invention; horrific fact and diligent if sketchy plotting. Surely it would have been wrong if either the bittersweet glow of freshly conceived romance or the grisly donnée of megadeath had prevailed: the one disrespectful to history, the other to art. And so the tawdry binary – life-death, life-death – stumbles on. It will be left to someone or other’s gorgeous music to provide either a lift or a settling for the Hollywood movie that will surely follow.
In an odd way The Zone of Interest abolishes itself as it goes along, so that the book is continually heaving itself off the ground; it is the opposite of ‘building’, in music, in architecture, in tension. Partly it is the difficulty of making any sort of showing against its chosen background, the Holocaust, but partly too it is Amis’s structuring. Each chapter is narrated by one of the three principals in sequence; it is a mechanical rotation of three solo instruments, with each one rubbing out the one before, and this through six whole chapter cycles. There is the hero-cum-antihero Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, a rather shadowy (‘I liaise’) and agnostic figure who seems to stand coolly outside the Nazi hierarchies, despite being the favourite nephew of Hitler’s presumptive successor Martin Bormann. He is a machine seducer, a tall blond Aryan type (‘the Icelandic arsehole’ to one of his meaner conquests), the prototype of the selfish and self-assured young man, who when the book begins has just caught a glimpse of his intended next victim, Hannah, the stately and beautiful wife of the camp commandant. He, the commandant, ‘the Old Boozer’ Major Paul Doll is the second narrator-character, and really the only reason for reading the book: an almost excessively interestingly put-together figure, full of stylistic tics, who blends English and German, business-speak and deadpan, vanity and piffle. Like an undermanager in a storm of directives, he is basically trying to keep his place in the continual churn of the war and the Final Solution: trying to run the camp as economically and frictionlessly as possible, trying to keep his wife, stay on top of his zealous underlings, chase after the impressive and intimidating manliness that was never at any time his. He is a somewhat memorable if not entirely plausible or successful creation, and his sections of the novel resemble an Auschwitz episode of Dad’s Army. And then, last and least (he has about a quarter of the number of pages of the other two, and his agonised strivings for dignity and truth make his appearances difficult for the reader after the knockabout of the over-ripe Doll: the sequence of speakers here is one that dare not be reversed), there is the Polish Jew and Sonderkommando (i.e. one of those camp inmates who are provisionally kept alive, and favoured, but only at the price of working with corpses) Szmul Zachariasz. His speech is austere and reduced, though still stylised, and far from unselfconscious: ‘We are the saddest men in the Lager. We are in fact the saddest men in the history of the world. And of all these very sad men I am the saddest.’
These speakers in that order are recycled through six chapters; as I say, each one has the tendency of rubbing out his predecessor and fading in the face of his successor. The styles are rivalrous; the perspectives are incompatible. Nor is that all. An ‘Aftermath’ (another, more general rubbing-out) tidies up most of the loose ends and takes us into the early postwar period; two of the speakers are dead and the third, somewhat surprisingly (no-spoiler alert here!), has got a job as a translator and de-Nazifier (‘That’s the best thing you could be doing. And all power to you’). Another shake-the-frame-and-wipe-the-picture. At this point there is a photograph – a complete surprise, this, and very hard to account for – of Hitler with a sweaty but rather chirpy-looking Martin Bormann. (If you are going to come with pictures, why make so many words, the reader thinks to himself.) Nor is that all: there is an ‘Acknowledgments and Afterword’ where the author returns with an annotated – ‘exquisite’, ‘excellent’, ‘monument of moral solidity (and uxoriousness)’ – reading list. By which point, at the end, the reader thinks: I have been wasting my time with this one.
A plot involving all three figures doesn’t really exist; there is no ‘contraption of interest’, only and at best a ‘zone’. Inevitably, most of the running is made by Doll (the others are all happy to stay out of his way): trying to keep tabs on Thomsen, trying to get the most use out of Szmul, trying to assert himself with his wife. Thomsen gets under his radar (Doll almost inevitably thinks he is queer), but then Thomsen can’t and doesn’t do anything anyway, and his originally raunchy feelings for Hannah (‘a big fuck: that was what I said to myself’) become transmuted into something more philanthropic than philandering. Szmul can offer little but passive opposition. And Hannah Doll has the beating of her husband – literally and otherwise – any time she likes (the whole book is about Big Women and Little Men).
Such intrigue as there is mostly involves a couple of lazily, even insultingly similar plot devices: Hannah’s first love, Dieter Kruger, and Szmul’s wife, Shulamith, both distantly traced through the Reich’s prisons and camps. As far as the book is concerned, all this is over the hills and far away. (Considering who he is and what he was responsible for, Doll is shockingly ineffectual.) So nothing much changes between the characters, only – supposedly – within them. Accordingly, Thomsen – he says it himself at the end, so it must be true – becomes ‘a reformed character’, in every sense. Amis has fixed him. Szmul drifts helplessly towards an inevitable violent death, but at least it’s one of his own choosing. Doll (and not Thomsen at all) becomes the pussy-whipped adulterer as he descends into alcohol dependency and finally madness and demotion. As the book falls into three separate parts, each gets where he was probably always heading: an inexpressibly grim history, an inadequate sentimental education, and a farcical comedy of a suspiciously British hue. ‘Let’s just say Doll was beholden to his brown trousers.’
The play of British and German throughout is notable: I haven’t been confronted with so much German in ages in an English setting, not since the brazen Audi ads of the 1980s. Much of this is associated with Doll; the endless Nazi ranks and terms (‘Rottenfuhrer’ is of course a gift) but also sex and anatomy (or more properly, upholstery) are German: ‘She’s short in the Unterschenkel, Alisz, but she has a glorious Hinterteil. As for the other stuff, the Busen and such, it’s hard to say – but there’s certainly no argument about the Sitzflache.’ A curious feature of this macaronic German – nicht? – is that it has a zero tolerance policy for umlauts. I don’t think I saw a single one. The English reader can, it seems, be trusted with many things, but not those. Linguistics experts will draw their conclusions. The ribald German in Doll is compounded with an (in every sense) arch English, the one from the Boy’s Own, the other from a bygone England that probably antedates John Major’s, a kind of neo-Edwardian jolly hockey-sticks schtick. He puts – I am afraid – the camp in camp: ‘Muggins here’ or ‘Lean it on the toast rack. And more Darjeeling’ or ‘I wryly reminisced about old Walther Pabst. He and I campaigned together in the Rossbach Freikorps. What sweating, snorting chastisements we visited on the Red queers in Munich and Mecklenburg, in the Ruhr and Upper Silesia, and in the Baltic lands of Latvia and Lithuania!’ And then Doll has the tic of writing out all the numbers in expressions as figures: ‘Count the femurs and divide by 2. Nicht?’ he says, echoing the tried and tested method of the police at demonstrations. The reader’s receptors are kept twanging – and not necessarily in a good way. The tics tend to eclipse the more challenging and interpretative aspect of Doll, the gently anachronistic businessman, working in a particularly squalid private-public partnership – taking over from Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ the ‘business of evil’ or even just the ‘evil of business’ – where he is looking for ‘matching funds’, or talking about ‘the people in the target communities’ or worrying (as if it were a photocopying machine or some other footling overhead) how to ‘justify the mobilisation of a full Storm (with flamethrowers)?’; while his more martial colleagues, in a similar vein, and their anachronistic idiom, are exercised about ‘materiel’ or fearing ‘a boiling insurgency right down the length of the Urals for ever and ever’. Everything in Amis comes with some style, but unfortunately not everything fits this well.
This typifies what I would call the book’s short focus, and short stylistic focus too. It elicits not one but both types of unwelcome reaction from the reader: both the ‘so what?’ and the ‘I don’t believe you’ and sometimes both together, as in many of the weather sentences (in The Zone of Interest the weather ends up having to stand in for reality). ‘The grey sky went from oyster to mackerel’: it’s a pretty notion and catchpenny-clever, but really not. The big and medium-sized things in it – the vision thing – almost completely don’t work. At one stage, Thomsen writes:
I walked on for another ten minutes; then I turned and looked. The Buna-Werke – the size of a city. Like Magnetigorsk (a city called Sparkplug) in the USSR. It was due to become the largest and most advanced factory in Europe. When the whole operation came on line, said Burckl, it would need more electricity than Berlin.
I can’t be persuaded here that anyone is seeing anything. First the stray Soviet comparison (and – mainly authorial – explanatory, as it were, self-basting gibe), then the slither (‘due to become’) in time, then the switch of person to Burckl. There’s nothing here, not even a placeholder, a piece of cardboard with ‘Forest’ on it. Or take a swank Berlin government room in 1942 or 1943: ‘The air was full of tobacco smoke and existential unhappiness.’ Surely not! One might as well say it was full of low-hanging zeugmas. I can’t imagine a contemporary speaker (‘I liaise’ or not) for these lines from a departing train: ‘And now Berlin started off on its journey, westward – Friedrichshain with its blocked sebaceous glands and pestilential cafeterias, the Ahnenerbe with its skeletons and skulls, its scurf and snot, the Potsdamer Platz with its smashed faces and half-empty uniforms.’ They are just magniloquent and omniscient like any other third-generation synthesised Isherwood. And the governing idea of the book, that love purifies, or the right sort of love purifies (Szmul’s ‘I love my wife, but I’m glad I’ll never see her again’; and then Thomsen’s), that’s best not even mentioned. On the other hand, the little things are curious, often obtrusive, mostly thought-about and sometimes sharply pleasurable. Otherwise I don’t think I could have read the book straight through twice. There is the kind of attention to detail that has a tough-bitten soldier twice burst into tears, hundreds of pages apart, when his Jewish inamorata dances. There is a decent running gag about Doll’s daughters’ horse coming down with serial horse ailments (which of course all have funny-sounding names). There is a hilarious – Madame la Marquise-style – reporting of the Battle of Stalingrad:
‘I hear we’re undersupplied. There are shortages.’
‘True. There’s hardly any fuel. Or food. They’re eating the horses.’
‘And the cats, I heard.’
‘They finished the cats.’
I love the detail, the scruple, the sheer vindictiveness of Amis’s grammatical sneer at his own character Doll – ‘Lady Luck, that day, smiled on we Pretorians’ – even though that again seems typical of the miniature, interstitial, finally inconsequential scale of the imagination on display.
The book as a whole strikingly lacks the dimension of fear: it is far too breezy to allow fear (a cloud or miasma, after all) to settle. Amis – and quite possibly English as a whole, with its ingrained elements of banter and irony and reserved judgment – isn’t very good at catching or conveying the gradient of a conversation or a relationship. When Thomsen talks to his dying, same-age aunt (with whom he may or may not have had a relationship), she sounds like his grandmother, because Amis insists on her calling him ‘Golito’ all the time. In English – in Amis – humour is privileged, always. But how to humour – and for that matter, why humour? – someone who speaks in death sentences, even if you’ve taken the trouble to call him ‘Doll’? Who is the big man here? In England you can’t tell (and someone like Canetti spent half his life wondering). Where is the hierarch, and why won’t he talk like one? There is something not quite serious about The Zone of Interest; exchanges between powerful men and effortless arbiters on life and death are for the most part simply ridiculous; one can’t tell who has ‘the upper hand’, who is at risk, who is playing whom – because both are playing each other, and the whole thing is a game. The idiom is not arm-wrestling but paper-scissors-stone. Take away the sting of class and the inevitability of dissimulation, and a whole world of rather crude scenes (they are about rank, and not class) useful to an understanding of the 1930s and 1940s seem not to be available to Amis’s English imagination, in which pompousness is not naturally equated with power, or assertion with domination. Speech tends to be colour, not weight; which of course is hopeless (when Mandelstam writes about Stalin, he writes about weight).
If you think a novel is splashing through a puddle, and what you are good at is splashing through puddles, then you will continue to splash through puddles even if you are in far over your head, and your novel will continue to have the entertaining and transgressive virtues and the unbelievable and crippling limitations of splashing through puddles. Even if you supply a reading list.