Martin Amis’ new Holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest, is not about Adolf Hitler. Until, weirdly, it is. But for the first 295 pages, it is a difficult yet captivating book set in Auschwitz, one that reflects the atrocity of the Final Solution through the lusts and petty jealousies of Nazi officials. What begins as a romance between Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, fictional nephew of Hitler’s secretary, and Hannah Doll, wife of the pathetic and monstrous Kommandant, ends as a complicated moral tale that reveals the full spectrum of complicity in the Nazi horror. And it does all of this without once uttering the name “Hitler.” Or at least not until an afterword, fronted by a grainy image of the Führer, where Amis explains everything about the book that he doesn’t need to explain.
It may still be true, what Christian Lorentzen wrote in 2011, when Martin Amis moved from London to Brooklyn, that the author’s “every utterance tends for better or worse to constitute an international event.” Only now it’s hard to say whether Amis’ actual books do the same. Gallimard, his French publisher, rejected The Zone of Interest for “literary reasons”; Carl Hanser Verlag, his publisher in Munich, balked on both literary and “economic” grounds. Yet the book was glowingly reviewed in England, when it was reviewed at all — London Review of Books seems not to have bothered. It turns out that there is no accounting for taste, especially when it comes to Holocaust novels.
Still, I wanted to know if Americans would take to Amis’ novel, especially after our wholesale rejection of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2009), a massive, perverse Holocaust fiction that momentarily outsold Harry Potter in France. So I went to hear Amis read at Brooklyn’s BookCourt (for his newish neighbors).
When I arrived in Cobble Hill, I found Amis smoking a cigarette, sandwiched between two guys on a tiny bench. Not one for eavesdropping, I patiently waited to enter the bookstore, until I heard Amis shout: “What do you mean by jihadist!” I then remembered that he had made some controversial remarks about Muslims nearly a decade ago — not unlike Bill Maher last week — some of which he retracted. I looked back at Amis, who was wearing a leather jacket. Then I ran inside and drank a glass of wine.
“Americans get up and do things,” Amis said to a full house after being fêted as “a neighbor and loyal customer.” As he read from the book, pausing to chug a glass of red wine, I became convinced that the reader’s opinion of the novel will depend entirely on the voice she hears while reading it. If she hears the ventriloquism of an erudite, posh Londoner, as the French and Germans seem to have done, she will despise it. If, on the other hand, she hangs on its acrobatic shifts in vocal register, as American and British critics do, she may consider it a masterpiece. I find myself somewhere in between.
Somehow Amis’ gravelly delivery was more grave and more ridiculous than the voice I imagined. He recited “fuck” as “fuuugk.” Then he skipped between sections of the book, providing context that provoked nervous laughter. “Golo’s looks work better on obedient Nazi women,” he winked. The crowd chuckled. During the Q&A, he mostly avoided questions, choosing instead to discuss the composition of anti-Semitism in specific countries. He presented “his friend” Christopher Hitchens’ own theories of “what he calls the oldest hatred.” He referred to Hannah Arendt as “the worst court reporter ever.” He claimed, coldly, that schizophrenia is the “first refuge of the disorganized mind.” In short, his presentation was in excess of what was necessary, precisely in the manner of his afterword. Suddenly I was withdrawn from the moral universe of The Zone of Interest. I was now listening to the author of Dead Babies.
Someone asked about The Zone of Interest’s rejection at the hands of his French and German publishers. “It was like a kick in the ass,” he said. Then, deflecting, he cited several hypotheses about Hitler’s sexuality. “I’ve decided that he was an asexual pervert.”
Then I realized: we’ve got Amis precisely backward. None of his utterances should constitute an international event. When he stops reading, and starts talking — about Muslims, Hitler, feminism, or asexual perversion — we should stop listening. At least in the case of Martin Amis, trust the tale and not the teller.