‘Everybody could see that this man was not a “monster”, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown,’ wrote Hannah Arendt of Adolf Eichmann, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Indeed, Eichmann was certified as ‘normal’ by half a dozen psychiatrists. On more than one occasion in Martin Amis’s troubling new novel one of its main characters, the fictionalised commandant of a thinly disguised Auschwitz, declares himself ‘completely normal’. He also happens to be an oaf, a clown. We are dealing, then, with the banality of evil.
Set in the months from August 1942 to April 1943, when it became clear that the Germans were going to lose the war and that the Final Solution had better be hurried up, the story is told in three voices. In, as it were, removing the author, Amis disallows himself from indulging that virtuoso prose style for which he is interminably commended in all-too-often faint praise.
The voices are managed well. The first, the one closest to the author’s, is that of Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, who is concerned in some way with the building of the Buna rubber works factory at Auschwitz III. He is a perfect Aryan specimen (‘my arctic eyes were cobalt blue’), a womaniser (‘I had eased off many a pair of furry bloomers’), and free of the need to romanticise national socialism by virtue of his being the nephew of Martin Boormann, the chief’s (neither Hitler nor Auschwitz is ever mentioned by name) private secretary. Thomsen is educated, intelligent, sardonic.
The second voice is that of Paul Doll, the aforementioned commandant. Part of the troubling nature of the book rests in the fun Amis has with this character. Doll’s language is demotic, ‘garnished’ (Amis’s term) with German: ‘I could clearly see the outlines of her Bruste, the concavity of her Bauchnabel and the triangle of her Geschlechtsorgane.’ There is much about bodies in this book.
The third voice is that of Szmul, the Sonderkommando-Führer, the ‘saddest man who ever lived’, the Polish Jew charged with disposing of the bodies of the victims of the gas chambers. Part of his work involves the inspecting of the cadavers’ orifices for hidden treasures. His passages are short and spare. Szmul is resigned, wise, in hell. It is he who provides the novel’s central philosophical conceit, the analogy of Auschwitz with a mirror that shows not your reflection but your soul.
Names are important. Thomsen appears not quite to live up to his Christian name, and is known instead as ‘Golo’. Doll is a puppet, a man like Eichmann, dutiful, loyal to ‘the Deliverer’, law-abiding. Szmul is a slang word in Polish for a prostitute. In Hebrew it means, literally, ‘the name of God’. ‘Sondercommando’ means ‘special unit’, an example of the euphemistic language employed by the Nazis in carrying out die Endlosung (the Final Solution). Amis characteristically latches on to this. Among other examples, murder is ‘the apt procedure’.
There is a plot. Thomsen falls in love with Doll’s wife, Hannah (a Hebrew name, meaning ‘grace’). Warned by his childhood friend, Waffen SS officer Boris, of the dangerous nature of the liaison, he calls an end, at least to its physical side, almost before it has begun.
A backstory involving Hannah’s first, lost, love, Dieter Kruger, who we never meet, is gradually revealed. Doll, who had betrayed Kruger, remains sexually jealous as Hannah withholds herself from him, with the intention of driving him mad. Thomsen makes it his aim to find out what happened to Kruger. It turns out his uncle was involved in Kruger’s unpleasant death.
The central plot concludes on Walpurgis night when, according to folklore, witches meet on the Brocken, a mountain in central Germany. We remember the book’s epigraph, from Macbeth: ‘Liver of blaspheming Jew / Gall of goat, and slip of yew / Silvered in the moon’s eclipse, / Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips.’
This story is played out against incredible atrocities, treated principally through Doll’s voice. Doll is sent mad not simply by his wife but by the demands, on the one hand, of the Economic Administration Head Office, demanding extra labour for its munitions factories, and on the other by the Reich Central Security Department, pressing for the — more euphemism — ‘disposal of as many evacuees as possible’. And then there is the Air Defence Authority complaining about light from the bonfires of Stücke (corpses). In those moments when he has time to reflect on what he is over-seeing, Doll reminds himself that ‘to be kind to the Jew is to be cruel to the German.’.So this is a troubling read. The plot has elements of farce. The characters are largely humours rather than personalities. The best realised is Doll, in whose company the novel is most enjoyable. Why have we been invited into this corrupting place? If fiction is the lie that tells the truth, what becomes of the truths that fiction uses? Should the Holocaust be reduced to fiction? These are questions the reader finds it hard to avoid.
George Steiner maintained that ‘the world of Auschwitz lies outside speech, as it lies outside reason’, and that the only possible response to the unspeakable horrors of the Third Reich was silence. The American novelist Cynthia Ozick, also Jewish, writes about the Holocaust in her fiction but questions herself: ‘I don’t want to tamper or invent or imagine.’ She does not want to contribute to the mythologising of the Shoah.
Grubbiness has often been an intended effect of Amis’s fiction, but here grubbiness threatens to turn to disgust. Disgust with author and disgust with oneself for giving in to the rhetorical power of his writing. Not until the last page of the fiction does one begin to be released: ‘Imagine how disgusting it would be if anything good came out of that place.’ An afterword follows, and it is interesting to consider whether this constitutes part of the novel. As a rule, following D.H. Lawrence’s dictum, the reader wishes to trust the tale rather than the teller. Here, however, the teller goes further to justify the telling, and the final release for the reader at its end is an almost physical relief.
This is a nasty, timely book, as good as anything Amis has written since London Fields (1989), and one he obviously felt compelled to write. He has done his subject justice. If it only helps to explain to those who at present so promiscuously throw around the word ‘genocide’ what that awful word in reality denotes it will have earned the attention it will certainly receive.