It’s like some accident befell Martin Amis half way through his career. Without ever quite writing the masterpiece expected of him he did write a series of brilliant and very funny novels. Then, all of a sudden, he collapsed. He lost his mojo. Yellow Dog is probably the worst novel in history written by a first rate novelist. Since then we’ve had House of Meetings, The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, all lacking the vitality and high wire virtuosity of his earlier work. Now he’s chosen to write about the Holocaust for the second time. In his afterword he tells us how difficult it has always been for him to gain entrance into the Holocaust, to secure any kind of understanding of its “wild fantastic disgrace”, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip”, until he stumbled upon an interview with Primo Levi in which Levi said the actions of the Nazis should always remain beyond comprehension because the act of comprehension is, in some way, to find justification. So Amis makes no effort in his novel to comprehend what happened at Auschwitz – here named Kat Zet; rather, he focuses predominantly on the banality and ethical undertow of its evil, distils the evil into workplace and social tensions at the camp, most notably, sexual rivalry. The insane industrial slaughter takes place offstage (we draw on our own stock of brutal images to provide the pathos), its stink the most pervasive toxin of the reeling barbarity of the camp.
The novel has three rotating narrators. Doll, the camp commandant is psychotic, deluded, vain, self-pitying, pulsing with self-righteous bluster and as such a familiar Amis creation. Thomsen, the protected playboy nephew of Martin Bormann, is some kind of middle manager responsible for the camp’s workforce and the production of synthetic rubber. He is more morally ambivalent. To begin with he sees Doll’s wife, the most vocal conscientious objector in the novel, as the latest challenge for his sexual vanity but his blossoming feeling for her begins to humanise him. The third narrator is Szmul, head of the Sonderkommando, the workforce of prisoners detailed to dispose of the bodies - "nearly all our work is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders".
In a nutshell, Doll is the perpetrator of the horror, Thomsen the bystander and Szmul the victim. Without question the most difficult character for Amis to imagine is Szmul, the electric insanity of the work he’s forced to do every day beggaring belief. Somewhere in the novel Amis states that the Third Reich forced people to see who they were, made it impossible to hide from themselves. Szmul though and the ethical and physical horror he undergoes every day, not surprisingly, eludes Amis. But you feel this is intentional. Szmul is a ghost, remains a ghost throughout the novel and as such, conversely, works better than the other two narrators because he is what haunts everyone.
What we have is a novel set in Auschwitz that is almost bereft of dramatic tension. It’s engaging and highly intelligent without ever being truly enthralling or disturbing. The writing is consistently good without ever being thrillingly brilliant. As you’d expect with a writer of Amis’ exalted comic gifts he does a great job of mocking the Nazis. But all in all I found it an oddly unemotional experience. The aftermath, when after the war Thomsen seeks out Hanna, is genuinely moving but overall this novel is not a moving experience. Ultimately I’m not sure why Amis wrote this novel. Time’s Arrow was a brilliant dramatization of the monumental insanity of the Holocaust – to understand which will always be like trying to decode the speaking in tongues of the mentally deranged. Why, when you’ve succeeded once, attempt the same subject again?
Incidentally, Hannah will do nothing to change the widespread conviction that Amis can’t write women.
I’d recommend it but add a note of caution about getting your hopes up.