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I recently finished Martin Amis’s novel, The Zone of Interest, the plot of which centers around the conflicts of a host of characters inside a Nazi death camp — German soldiers, their wives, children, and, of course, the Jews. The book was rejected by Amis’s German publisher and received mixed reviews when it came out last year. That’s largely because of the unconventional and sometimes uncomfortable use of satire in a Holocaust novel.
The book reads much like a conventional character drama, centered around themes of jealousy, lust, ambition, and longing. Only, in this case, this rather standard human tale happens to be taking place in the midst of the most inhuman atrocities imaginable. Gruesome and brutal crimes of world-historic proportions serve as a mere backdrop for a story that stubbornly focuses on the mundane and rather unremarkable relationships of those guilty of the crimes.
You’ve never read a Holocaust novel like this one. Some readers might feel that Amis’s approach minimizes the heinous crimes that are taking place. But for me, it worked in just the opposite way. Amis’s focus on the trivial “drama” taking place among his Nazi characters has the effect of humanizing them and making the horrible genocide they are carrying out seem all the more incomprehensible. By the end of the book I was left wondering how, how, how did the genocidal mania of Nazism ever take hold of nearly an entire nation of seemingly normal human beings? What was the origin of this great hatred, and of the great collective will to act on it?