Review of “The Zone of Interest,” by Martin Amis

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Yes, a novel centered in the cruel, almost starkly surreal nightmare of the Nazi concentration camps is about the most unsavory setting for any book. And, you’ll feel like some of the characters in this story, who Martin Amis has a remarkable ability to show their apathy, denial, yet their serious moral uncertainty, while they sluggishly trudge through the moral morass of Nazi Germany. You’ll need a potent glass of cognac or brandy, or even a classic cigar, to allay the forbidding terror that shoots up your spine, reading some of the most sickening, repulsive images that only haunt our collective nightmares, through the shadowy periphery, of the images left behind and preserved at the National Holocaust museum. Walking through this book, though, in contrast to the welling up of dark sadness created through walking the halls of the National Holocaust museum, is entirely different, and it takes a writer of artistic mettle, like Martin Amis to be authentic and accurate in conveying this depth of darkness. He does it  with just enough hints of dark humor, dressed up with enough dry wit, to help relieve some of the tension that is bound to settle over our minds, as we are seamlessly pulled through two or more different perspectives of drastically different characters, whose daily lifestyle is miserably entrenched in the running of this concentration camp.

Reading this book gave me masochistic chills, after awhile, even though the beginning felt turgid, slowed, limited, with the bevy of unrecognizable German names, and other technical terms, being thrown about. It was easy to get lost and disoriented. But once the dust of nominal distractions ceases, and you-the reader- becomes more fluent with the world, you are tossed into very rich, detailed psychological perspectives with very well-shaped, morally nuanced  Nazi characters. There are many strands to this story- there is a ironically funny love affair story taking place in the concentration camp meshed together with unsettling, but weirdly lucid and resonant observations about the strange, inexplicable shape of human nature. Also, there is some surgical details into the hierarchy of leadership within the camp, the types of jobs certain people take and the expectations of them, etc.   These things, the mundane surface of a truly downright frightful occupation, distracts both the reader and the characters from facing the true horror that is always on the fringes of their passivity.

This is a very dark, sometimes tough read, but it is very impacting, and never cloying (or apologetic) with the way the darkness, with just enough wit and wryness, to really keep the reader weirdly entranced with the dark nightmare. You want it it to be a temporary illusion; you want to neglect this nightmare that Martin Amis bravely paints of a very dark, even amoral time in human history. You want to deprive his Nazi characters of the psychological depth they’re granted, because it’s easier to envision evil as having no depth, no substance, and something that can be easily subverted from the mind with enlightened images.

It is rare to find a work so frighteningly brave, in the way it delves into a historical event that has either had to be portrayed with some sentimentality, just to make the subject matter slightly palatable for the reader. And, the levity is there; it’s just more realistically drawn in a world where people, frankly, have a very different sort or persuasion of humor about the type of world they’re inhabiting. You’ll find yourself falling deep and deeper into this nightmarish world that Martin Amis creates, and you may, like myself, find yourself in deep awe and amazement over just how  Martin Amis, without any cheap tricks, pulls this well-structured, artistic tale off so damn well.

Initially, the writing can be tedious, but that is not a critique of the writing quality, but more descriptive of the novel’s genre. It is a post-modern pastiche novel, which has the fragmentation of a modernist novel, with the blending of different genre elements and experimental forms of writing to make it purely post-modern. This is a literary novel, and you really had to push yourself through the harder, sometimes muddier passages, till things really start to click. It’s really worth the effort, because it makes you reflect deeply on morals, ethics, human nature on a whole. As an aspiring writer, it made me wonder whether literature, that is sometimes seeped in moral darkness, can still be edifying. Does all art have to serve that type of singular purpose, of edification, or as the book’s flap cover describes, beautifully, is this type of skillful artwork a clear, sometimes terrifying reflection of our own human souls, perfectly rendered for us to look upon and see without any idealistic manipulations?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Matthew ( says:

    I think you’re right when you position this as a book without cheap tricks – a very straight sort of a book – and something quite different from Amis, I’d say. I’m not sure whether it quite worked for me, but this is, at least in part, down to my expectations of an Amis novel, I think.

    My review: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis


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