Thursday, January 11, 2018

"The Zone of Interest" by Martin Amis

Amazon link

This is, I think, the first Martin Amis novel I've actually read.


I guess I had him pegged as a North London liberal, one of the golden generation who probably couldn't actually write that well, or who was transfixed by self-referential Islington-angst like Ian McEwan (am I being unfair?).

But no. Amis can write, he's interested in big questions and he's not restrained by bien-pensant shibboleths (or not much).

Hence a novel concerned in minute detail with human relationships between the Nazis at .. Auschwitz.

Very brave.


Here's a plot summary.
"The novel begins in August 1942, with Thomsen's first sight of Hannah Doll, wife of Paul Doll, the camp's commandant. (Doll's name is similar to Otto Moll, a notorious camp commandant in real life.)

He is immediately intrigued and initiates a few encounters with her. In time their relationship becomes more intimate, even though it remains unfulfilled. Despite their attempts at discretion, Paul Doll's suspicions are raised. He has her followed by one of the camp's prisoners, and is informed by him that they did indeed make two exchanges of letters.

While spying on Hannah in the bathroom (as he does regularly), Paul watches her read the letter from Thomsen secretly and rather excitedly, before destroying it. From that point onward, his wife becomes increasingly contemptuous of him, viciously taunting him in private, and embarrassing him in public.

Paul decides to assign Szmul, a long-serving member of the Sonderkommando, to the murder of his wife. He does so by threatening to capture Szmul's wife, Shulamith. The murder is scheduled to take place on April 30, 1943 - at Walpurgisnacht."
Thomsen is the nephew of Martin Bormann and leads a rather charmed life. Not that this saves him in the end.

In his afterword, Amis writes about the paradox of Nazism. Why the final solution? Why did they do it?

And quotes Primo Levi:
"“Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand [the Holocaust] is almost to justify ... no normal human being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and endless others. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human...”
and then comments, "Historians will consider this more an evasion than an argument."

But Amis offers no analytical thoughts of his own.


Martin Amis is a novelist, not a sociologist. We look to his characters for explanations .. that is to say, their personality types. And here the Myers-Briggs/Keirsey schemes add value once again.

In the novel, Auschwitz presents itself as an environment of selection for Nazi staff. They are physically located at the gas chambers, the ovens, the pyres, the slave-labour factories and the centres for vivisection. It is impossible to ignore the smells, the screams and .. just what you see in front of you.

The primary screening attribute is empathy coupled with imagination. No-one with any degree of generalised empathy could possibly tolerate the place. Few Idealist NFs amongst the camp-Nazis.

Next focus on role: these are either abstract (policy and strategic) or concrete (operational).

Amis's hands-on characters, those who conduct 'selections' and 'actions' at Auschwitz are concrete ST types, generally logistical Guardian STJs. They have internalised that the jews, 'untermenschen', the handicapped and insane are to be classified as 'other', and are inured to 'the process'.

They're rule-followers.

The 'racial purity intellectuals' (like Goebbels and Hitler himself) do not physically attend the camps: for them, the raw physicality of death never intrudes. Their lack of empathy is abstract - the same as that of any military person or politician who is prepared to carpet bomb, or detonate nuclear weapons over cities.

For these people in themselves, Nazism is only an act of the intellect: either a deduction from certain principles or the righteous struggle on behalf of one imagined community ('the Aryan race') against its outgroups (the 'untermenschen'). Yes, the Nazis have their own version of SJWs - call them Racial Justice Warriors.

There is a third category of person: those who are caught up in the process but not directly involved in implementation. IG Farben business executives who are allocated concentration camp slave-labour, the protagonist Thomsen who serves as liaison between Auschwitz operations and Bormann's Party Chancellery. Thomsen describes his position as a 'Mitlaufer', (p. 148),
".. we were obstruktive Mitlaufer. We went along. We went along, we went along with, doing all we could to drag our feet and scuff the carpets and scratch the parquet, but we went along. There were hundreds of thousands like us, maybe millions like us. "
I think people like that, trapped by circumstance, were of diverse psychological type - though naturally all exhibiting an overarching deficit of empathy and imagination (few NFs then).


It's both interesting and sad that none of the four temperaments leads to good governance.

  • The rule of Rationals, Plato's Republic, leads to (always over-simple and inadequate) grand theory dominating humanitarianism. It doesn't have to be fascism .. Stalinism is another example. And the neocon-sponsored Vietnam and Iraq wars.

  • The rule of Idealists, which we have - at least ideologically - in the West at the moment, imposes (very selectively!) a normative model of human nature which sterilises human relationships. It's also profoundly reactionary in scientific terms, demonising research which 'feels uncomfortable'.

  • The rule of Guardians, as seen with Theresa May, is the domain of the concrete - without insight and imagination, politically ballistic, focused on operations over strategy. Destined to hit the wall when new thinking is required.

  • And finally, and perhaps most scary, the rule of Artisans. Those thrill-seeking adventurers who shoot from the hip, are easily bored and crave excitement. Welcome aboard, Mr Trump!
Yes, we are truly doomed to stumble from trap to trap.


What was Hitler's type by the way? Apparently INFJ, Of course, he never personally visited a death camp.

Hitler was an emotional and chaotic Idealist leader, whose moralistic drives had to be turned into policies and strategies by Rationals - and then implemented by Guardians and Artisans.

Reading his Wikipedia entry, Martin Bormann comes across strongly as a Guardian ESTJ.

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