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Martin Amis’ Humane Look at Inhumanity

Ilana Masad
February 15, 2015

by Ilana Masad

Reviewed in this essay: The Zone of Interest, a novel by Martin Amis, 2014, Knopf, 320 pages

images-3THE 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 that 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 (Yom HaShoah) means you wear a white shirt to school and attend a ceremony where some aspiring American Idolers ululate and make sad faces in front of microphones and half-hearted 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 U.S., 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 anti-Semitism 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 fifteen 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 Dresser, a 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 Jew promises 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.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. She spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and is now a full-time bilingual U.S. resident.