The Zone of Interest

Written by Martin Amis
Review by Douglas Kemp

Amis takes us into the uncomfortable territory of a Nazi death camp in Poland in 1942 and 1943. It is not named, but it soon becomes clear that Auschwitz-Birkenau is the place in question. The story is told in the first person, by three narrators – Paul Doll, Angelus Thomsen and Szmel. Doll is the Kommandant, based upon Hoss, Auschwitz’s head from 1940 to 1945. He is an alcoholic, seems to be increasingly mentally unbalanced and has marital problems with his headstrong wife Hannah. Thomsen is in a senior position at the camp’s Buna synthetic works, seemingly owing his position to his uncle, Martin Bormann. Thomsen is an epicene womanizer, who develops a passion for Hannah Doll. Szmel is the Jewish head of the Sonderkommando, the group with the fearsome responsibility for dealing with the corpses in the death camps.

The plot mostly focuses on the relatively minor concerns and dynamics of the camp management. In the midst of the daily industrial killing of hundreds of thousands of unfortunates, very little effort is directed towards their emotions or experiences. The scale of suffering was so immense as to be utterly unimaginable by anyone else, and that the Germans could run this atrocity whilst emphasising quotidian matters illustrates the extraordinary behaviour they consistently exhibited to do this. Amis displays a depth of knowledge on the bureaucracy of the German concentration camp and military systems and its personnel which might be rather convoluted for the average reader.

This is an engaging and brilliantly absorbing novel. At times amusing, amidst the despair and horrors of the death, there are diamond-hard glimpses of humanity and truth. In one of many extraordinary passages that stand out, Paul Doll compares his wife’s attempts to hide her smoking habit with the national effort to mask the whole exterminatory programme.