Humanity; or The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis – a review

The first Martin Amis novel I read was also the first one he published. The only thing The Rachel Papers (1973) shares with The Zone of Interest (2014) is the oddness of a romance that seems to be almost an afterthought to what are essentially character studies of men.

This is what I found most compelling about The Zone of Interest, and what is perhaps extremely difficult for some; it is a humane look at humans, on both sides of a situation which is hardly comprehensible. It’s hard to comprehend the excuses people made for themselves as well as the ability to survive. It’s hard to measure the depths of human ability to both enact and survive such horrors.

My perspective on this is perhaps somewhat different than many of the reviewers out there. I was raised in a secular Jewish household in Israel, where Holocaust Day means you wear white shirts to school and attend a ceremony where some aspiring American Idolers ululate and make sad faces in front of microphones and halfhearted bands. Holocaust Day means standing in the too hot yard at your school and waiting for the siren which comes on nationwide and standing there for two minutes trying not to giggle as you pinch your friends, or trying to be solemn and think about your grandparents in camps, or trying not to get impatient with the people fainting in the back from the heat or the people crying because oh, oh, oh, it’s so sad that their grandfather’s brothers all died sixty years ago.

It is so sad. It was so sad. But sad is not a big enough word and it almost trivializes “that which happened,” as Martin Amis calls the Holocaust in his Afterword. The over-saturation of Holocaust stories told to children in Israel, though, can be somewhat anesthetizing. I was never a grade or high school student in the US, so I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that it is hard for many kids to really grasp the horrors of slavery, even if their families are intimately connected to it on one side of the equation or the other. It is so easy to understand, to get it, and to move on and say Well, we’re okay, and it’s not like that anymore, not exactly, so…

But of course, just as racism is not eradicated (far from it) so antisemitism is alive and well in more than enough minds. That probably won’t change. I can’t imagine a world in which we, humans, stop using history and color and weight and language and heritage and speech patterns and intelligence and developmental or physical differences to set us apart from one another. I hope we do evolve that far, but I can’t see it.

Because humans, and this is what The Zone of Interest does so well, are so incredibly good at adapting to situations. We build defenses against both our worst and our best thoughts, depending on what is asked of us and what social sphere we’re part of. One of the protagonists in Amis’s book is a Kommandant at Auschwitz who is basically a bumbling, misogynistic alcoholic. But he is also a victim in his own way. As is the officer who falls in love with the Kommandant’s wife. As is the Jewish man who spends his days with the bodies of those he has reassured on their way to their deaths.

It is not the description of the horrors themselves that I found most profoundly moving in The Zone of Interest. I’ve been to Auschwitz. I’ve seen the piles of shoes and hair and the gas chambers. I’ve seen the films simulating the full 15 minutes it would take for people to die there. I’ve read novels about the Holocaust from the time I was a kid reading The Secret of Gabi’s Dressera teen rereading Anne Frank’s diary, and up until now, reading The Zone of Interest. There is an endless fascination with this subject because it is so incredibly easy to dismiss it as impossible. And we need to understand the impossible. It is like trying to imagine the heat at the core of the earth or the distance of the stars or the idea that the universe is both endless and expanding. It boggles the mind.

What Martin Amis does so well, then, is present the psychology of his three male protagonists as they experience the events that made up their day to day existence. He looks at how easy it is for a Nazi commander to unravel while committing continuous acts of murder while the complicit but surviving empty-eyed Jews who promise safety and pluck gold teeth out of dead mouths. Who is reviled more by the reader? Or is it the middleman who clings to love and bureaucracy in order to maintain his humanity?

It is profoundly human to be a survivor, but it is also profoundly human to be a murderer. Martin Amis made me feel more for the characters in his novel than many a Holocaust Ceremony at school did. This is a book for those who do not wish to forgive or forget, but who do wish to confront what humanity is, in all its strength, weakness, beauty and foulness.

The Little German Boy

“Everything will be just fine,” Greta murmured. She rocked back and forth with the small, frightened child in her lap, and hoped that he didn’t feel her racing heart and her fear. He clung to her neck and sobbed, voicelessly. He didn’t even pull on his nose or sniffle. He just let his tears and nose run and his shoulders shake, all in eerie silence. Greta was horrified that any child his age – she guessed he was four or five, although he was small and terribly thin – could control himself this way. The boy that she’d had when she was younger had been rambunctious, always running around, putting his hands into everything, shouting at the top of his voice until he tired himself out and plopped down in the comfiest spot in the house for a nap, just like an enthusiastic kitten might do.
“Shh, shh,” Greta began and stopped herself immediately. No, no, she shouldn’t, she mustn’t shush him. The poor thing hadn’t spoken a word, hadn’t made a sound since entering her house. She knew why, or she thought she knew why, but she didn’t want to think about it, and succeeded in pushing the complicated, conflicting notions out of her mind. She hoped that her son wouldn’t get home tonight. He hadn’t said he would, but sometimes he popped by after a night of drinking with the men, and when that happened, she never knew what kind of mood he’d be in. He was often weepy and melancholy as a drunk, and he would want to discuss her memories of him as a boy. But sometimes he would get himself into a rage and would talk at Greta, pacing around and around the small kitchen like a caged tiger at a circus. When he was like that, she tried to make herself small. He frightened her then and reminded her of her husband, may God rest his fiery soul and protect him from ending up in Hell.
The sobs abated and Greta pulled back from the child, trying to look into his face. He allowed her to do so, becoming limp like a rag doll in her arms and looking down at his little hands instead of up into her eyes. He’d only met her gaze once, when she’d found him in the outhouse, shivering, and then there’d been such fear – such absolute terror! – in his hungry eyes that Greta was almost thankful that she hadn’t needed to face it again.
A shout from outside made them both jump. Greta listened, and recognized the sounds of a parade starting to go through the village streets. The soldiers paraded often – theirs was a small town, and they didn’t have much work to do in it in between ventures to other towns in the area to recruit or into the countryside to scour it for runaways. As the boots began to pound the street, the boy in Greta’s arms started to shiver violently and then tried to leap off of her.
She struggled to hold him close, but he was like a wild animal, scratching at her hands and kicking his feet, trying to get away. When he bit her finger, she let out a moan of pain and let go and he scampered off through the house. Greta was off the couch in a second, after him. He ran from one small room to another, trying to open doors and windows, but they were all locked – Greta had locked them quickly and silently when she’d brought him in. She’d pulled the shades down too. When he couldn’t find a way out, he crawled right into the chimney and attempted climbing up it, frantically, falling down over and over again, try as he might to catch a handhold.
Greta knelt in front of the hearth and held out her arms to him, ignoring the pain in her finger. “Come, I’ll protect you,” she whispered. “They won’t get you. They won’t come here. You’re safe. You’re my little boy – I have peroxide, we can dye your hair, everything will be alright. My little blue-eyed boy.”
He stared at her, his sea-blue eyes stretched wide. He touched his hair, so filthy that Greta didn’t know whether it was brown or black. He met her eyes again, and she wondered whether someone like her had betrayed him once already, because there was such wariness in his face, such uncertainty.
“Everything is going to be alright, I promise. I’ll protect you,” she said again. Slowly, ever so slowly, he crawled out the fireplace and allowed her to whisk him away to the kitchen, where she made him a hot cup of tea as that parade went by outside.