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.

This Sort of Thing Always Shocks Me

So, as we all know, Facebook is a part of our lives. Well, not all our lives, but some of our lives. It’s not a big part of mine, but I do occasionally go on there. Lately, having become addicted to a certain game, I’ve been on more than usual, but that’s beside the point.

Today, lo and behold, I get a message from a person who was with my in high school. Now, let me make one thing clear: I hardly remember who I went to high school with. My friends and I were the nerdy kids and had our own nerdy outcast group going, and didn’t pay much attention to what anyone else was up to. So it took my a couple minutes to recognize the name and realize that this guy had also been in the same “gifted kids” program as me when we were in elementary school.

His message said that he had something important to talk to me about and could I please message him back. Half of me thought it was a prank. The other half of me thought he was going to be advertising some party or something like that.

It turned out that he’d remembered an instance when we were fighting about something at this program we’d been in when we were both eight or nine years old. He remembered that he’d pushed me down and that I’d fallen. He said that, remembering that, he felt awful about it and apologized, adding that he hoped that I hadn’t been severely hurt by the fall.

My jaw literally dropped. I am usually shocked when people I don’t know very well remember my name or recognize me. I am sometimes even shocked when my friends actually seem to want to hang out with me. I’m being serious – I really, honestly, am not fishing for compliments, it’s just that these are my gut reactions to things. So when somebody I hardly know at all apologizes for pushing me over when we were kids? I’m floored.

Faith in humanity? Gains ten points.

Border

There are borders everywhere. The sky above is, perhaps, the only place where there are none, no borders whatsoever. There may be clouds drifting across that create an illusion of borders between white fluff and blue sky; there might be layers of gases and pressures and atmosphere; but there aren’t any borders that humans created.

But people create borders all the time. There are visible ones, between inside and out or between general admittance and an employees-only area. There are borders that change all the time and seem, on the surface, to be so pointless really – like the borders between countries, or even more so, the borders between different cities. These are often invisible borders; they’re there, and crossing from one country to the other may require a passport, but if you walk on foot from one side of a barrier to the other, the land won’t have changed nor will the birds sing differently or the sun rise from a different direction.

The worst borders are the ones we put around ourselves, the way we separate ourselves from other people. We’re animals – we shouldn’t have a sense of privacy. But along with consciousness and individual thoughts and ideas, we’ve developed a love of loneliness and seclusion. Not physically, not necessarily. There are many people who can’t remain alone for long, but must surround themselves with other people, with noise and movement and a proof of life being lived. But there are still always borders – no one can know another mind perfectly; no one can fathom what someone else is feeling exactly; no one can remove the borders around themselves completely.

Mind-Space

Oftentimes it feels as if that space between one’s ears, that space that isn’t very large and shouldn’t be able to hold so much information – that space sometimes feels overfull. Thoughts crowd it, vying for position as the foremost amongst them. Feelings, which ultimately are all just caused by strange surges of electricity or chemicals, feelings also seem to crowd their own chambers; they don’t often make sense, and they tend to mix with the thoughts more often than not, causing a terrible tangle.

If only one could card out one’s thoughts and emotions like so much dirt out of wool. If only there were a way to silence the hundreds of half-formed ideas and concepts that jump around, just for a moment, just for a temporary relief. The silence and the privacy of that place in the mind seems somehow to be overwhelming and crowded, and one can’t help but wonder how, and if, anyone else deals with this.

Who knows? Perhaps you’re the only one with a crowded, tangled, snarled and unorganized mind. Perhaps everyone else’s minds work differently, perhaps they’re organized in tidy drawers and the thoughts can be pulled out neatly, one by one, and examined at the thinker’s leisure. Then again, maybe not. Maybe humanity, that sole race that seems to have such an extent of consciousness, is made up of billions of confused and messy-minded individuals, and each wonders if their mind is unique or if it is like this for everyone.

A Barber

In a small room with two mirrors, two swiveling chairs and three stationary ones, in a corner of Tel Aviv often overlooked by ordinary passerby, there is a barber. He seems a quiet man, a tactful man. Though it goes with his profession to be tactful and flattering as a rule, he seems rather sincere and serious when speaking of styles and colors.

Currently, it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking he was religious. The truth, if you inquire a bit, or if you hear him speaking to one of his regulars, is that his father has passed away, and he is in mourning. He is carrying out his mourning period, as is often done even by non-religious Jews, by not cutting his hair and beard and wearing a “Kipa”, a skullcap. The death of his father, not two weeks past, seems to weigh heavily upon him, because although his face lights up with a dazzling smile when greeting a true friend, it is fallen and tired the rest of the time.

All day long, he is on his feet without rest, charming and flattering the elderly women who come to get their hair dyed, joking with the men who come for a shave, welcoming in the stray stranger who finds his little shop. Despite being small, it is always overcrowded – he has dozens of regular customers, all popping in on their way to and from work, bringing their children and their dogs, making appointments on the fly or writing down their numbers for him to call them back and make proper engagements.

The warmth, the quiet chaos as customers change places constantly in the cramped shop, the kindness of the proprietor – all make the little spot a diamond in the rough of the Tel Aviv streets.

Friday Afternoon

So peaceful, so quiet. The buses don’t work and most people are napping, leaving the streets free of smog and full of children’s laughter and noise. Many kids are on their way to the Scouts meeting. They’ll be noisy once they really get started, but they’re still quiet, in their own building, not yet scattering across the park and playing.

The light has grown dim early, as it always seems to do on Friday afternoons, and there’s a cool, almost chilling, breeze coming in through the slats of the window. There is something so odd about the quiet. Just when it starts to feel eerie, though, a car whooshes past and reminds me that humanity is still there, life is still moving around me.

A sense of calm prevails over every other atmosphere. There can be nothing urgent on this afternoon. Time doesn’t really mean much right now. It feels like the sphere of this point in time and space is just an endless, calm, quiet thing, stretching on until forever. The ticking hands of the clocks betray the lie to that feeling though, and I sigh.

Tearing my eyes away from the spot they’ve been fixed on aimlessly for the past five minutes, I need to give myself a little shake to free myself from the cobwebs. I need to get back to reality now.

Sonnet ’49

Against that time, if ever that time come,
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advis’d respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;
Against that time do I ensconce me here,
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand, against my self uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:
To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause.

I may not be well versed in the works of Shakespeare yet, but believe me, I intend to be one day. I found this sonnet by accident while studying for the SAT subject tests. It was in one of the practice tests I did, and I remember freezing and reading it over and over until I got the intonation and the meaning just right. The humanity and simplicity of the poem just staggers me. It is beautiful, and so typical – just a person, a regular person, being so scared that they’re not worthy of their loved one and sure that they’ll leave them one day. It’s amazing how little humanity changes over the years when it comes down to the day to day emotions and characteristics.