The Zone of Interest is a WWII novel set in that area of Auschwitz which included the death and labour camps plus the homes and offices of those Germans who worked there and their families.
There are three narrators plus some very important non-narrating characters. The first narrator is Golo Thomsen, an executive in charge of the local IG Farben plant which utilizes slave labour. He doesn’t want to be there, and disapproves of, as he puts it, killing off the labour force. Thomsen rebels passively through most of the book, stating that people like him were “doing all we could to drag our feet … but we went along.”
Thomsen forms a thematic pair with his friend Boris Eltz. Captain Eltz is a former Colonel in the Waffen SS -a combat unit- who served in the fighting until a brawl with a General led to his demotion and assignment to Kat Zet 1 aka the Zone of Interest. Boris is not a gentle person, but not precisely evil. So bad is the Zone of Interest that fighting in the bloody battles of the war seems clean by comparison. Both hate where they are but feel trapped. Make no mistake, these are not ‘heart of gold’ characters. Both are bigots, but the horror of the camp is such that even they are repelled. “Who in Germany didn’t think the Jews needed taking down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous,” Boris says, with Thomsen’s tacit agreement.
A thin thread of love or the chance of love winds through the book. These are desperate people enveloped by the sight and stench of death who cling to something that offers the reminder, or perhaps the hope, of life and sanity. Thomsen uses casual sex as an escape, as does a more secondary character named Ilse Grese. But when Thomsen meets Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife, he recognizes her as someone extraordinary, and begins to feel something more than lust. Hannah uses smoking and raising her daughters as her way to cling to sanity, and later her feeling for Thomsen, whom she sees as a symbol of goodness. Their tenuous relationship is paralleled by that between Boris and Esther Kubis. Whereas Thomsen and Hannah are both German, Boris is a German soldier and Esther is a 15 year old Jewish prisoner. “Have you seen anything a tenth as sweet in your whole life?” Boris rhetorically asks Thomsen. Boris tries to protect her in his rough way, but she of course, given the circumstances, can return only suspicion and hate.
The second narrator is Szmul, one of a group of prisoners put to work in the death camps in exchange for a drink, sausage, cigarettes, shelter, and a temporary (we are told 2-3 months is typical) reprieve from death. Szmul insists his group shares no guilt because they “do no harm … and “on balance we do a little good.” In some ways Szmul is the most interesting narrator. Through his eyes we see the most grisly elements of that world in stark immediacy, from a ghoulish person himself standing halfway into death. Yet we learn he sees himself not as a ghoul but as a witness deserving of understanding, if not sympathy.
The third narrator is Paul Doll, the camp Commandant. He is a delusional madman, or evil, or both. His absurd opinions, his self-fantasizing about being a great warrior, is the primary source of the novel’s black humor. It makes him a figure to mock, a buffoon, yet the mockery never makes him a harmless court jester character. He remains a chilling evil madman who believes in what he is doing, approaching mass murder as a matter of economy and finance. Amis makes this double act look easy but it is a very difficult writing trick to pull off.
Hannah Doll would have made a good narrator for a couple of chapters. As would have Boris Eltz. Both are intriguing characters with well developed personalities, even second-hand in someone else’s narration. A few chapters in their voices would have made a welcome addition to the narrative.
The scenes of misery and death are unrelenting. It affects all the characters and hangs over every scene. The growing affection between Hannah and Thomsen is a thin thread of light attempting to work its way into the darkness. The plot itself is a bit disjoined. There is almost no forward momentum. The writing is excellent, as we would expect from Amis.
The book ends with a much needed jump ahead in time, to a few years after the war. Thomsen searches for Hannah. We learn, in quick asides, his thoughts returning to people and events of the recent past, what happened to the main characters. Some survive, most do not. This is narration via the mind of Thomsen, but it feels very smooth and natural, done within the voice and personality of that character.
When Thomsen ends his search for Hannah what he learns leads to a very poignant and perhaps bittersweet choice between two totally opposite paths for these emotionally damaged Germans. Both possibilities are given legitimacy, and the author refuses to decide for the reader which is the better choice. And there the novel ends.