It took me about three chapters in to realize what I was reading about – where this novel is set, and in which time. The language – a mixture of German, English, Polish words, an Austrian dialect, and Nazi slang – would make much of this inaccessible to people who do not speak the languages. I do. But even so, referring to “Stucke” – which in proper German is Stücke, meaning pieces, to refer to body parts of chopped up Jewish prisoners – takes some getting used to.
Another example is “Kat Zet I”. Kat Zet is the shorthand that the characters in the novel use for “K” in German (pronounced “kay”) and “Z”in German (pronounced “tzet”). It is shorthand for Konzentrationslager, which means concentration camp. Later on it becomes clear Amis means Auschwitz. “Uncle Martin” is Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary during the Third Reich. “Buna-Werke” refers to Monowitz (also called Monowitz-Buna or Auschwitz III) a subcamp of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp, established in October 1942 by the SS at the behest of I.G. Farben executives, to provide slave labor for their Buna Werke (Buna Works) industrial complex for rubber production.
Horror piled upon horror
It got worse page by page from the moment that I realized what was being described – the giant death camp and rubber works at Auschwitz III. But this connected me to the name of the novel: IG Farben, the builders of the Buna Works, was a German chemical industry conglomerate, notorious for its role in the Holocaust. Its name is taken from Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG (Syndicate [literally, “community of interests“] – there’s the title – of dye-making corporations). Following the Nazi takeover of Germany, IG Farben became involved in numerous war crimes during World War II. Most notoriously, the firm’s pro-Nazi leadership openly and knowingly collaborated with the Nazi government to produce the large quantities of Zyklon B necessary to gas to death millions of Jews and other “undesirables” at various extermination camps during the Holocaust. The firm ceased operating following the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, when the company was seized by the Allies; its assets were entirely liquidated in 1952, and 13 executives were imprisoned for terms ranging from 1 to 8 years at the Nuremberg Trials (specifically, the IG Farben Trial) for their roles in the atrocities.
Love even in war
So, into this hellish scenario comes some form of a love story. The protagonist, “Golo Thomsen”, is a high-ranking officer trying to sabotage the Buna Works. He falls in love with “Hannah”, the wife of the “commandant”, commander of Kat Zet I, (“Kommandant” in German), of Kat Zet, “Paul Doll”. “Doll” is a nightmare of a human being and his wife hates him and the Nazi regime with venom:
“’Doll was covered in blood. God, what a bullet does…and still trying to smile. I suddenly knew who he’d been all along. There he was, a nightmarish little boy. Caught doing something plainly disgusting. And still trying to smile.”(p. 291)
In his novel Lionel ASBO, Amis depicts ASBO as evil, but also human – self-doubting at times, capable of being humiliated, and aware of his own low status. (Read my review of this novel here.) But “Paul Doll” is a far worse specimen of humanity, who does evil on a massive scale. Lionel ASBO has its black humour. This novel doesn’t even have the faintest whiff of a hint of a smidgen of humour. It is an amazing feat of language and imaging that Amis has performed to get himself into the heads of these characters, particularly the head of “Paul Doll”.
The book is told from the perspectives of “Doll”, “Thomsen” and “Szmul”, leader of one of the “Sonderkommandos” at the camp who tries to save as many prisoners as he can. Credit has to go to Amis for so convincingly and fluently voicing these characters. (In his afterword Amis writes: “For the tics and rhythms of German speech my principal guide was Alison Owings and her Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich.”)
“Szmul’s” “Sonderkommandos” were work units of German Nazi death camp prisoners, composed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. They had to deal with the “Stucke”. The term itself in German means “special unit”, and was one of the vague and euphemistic terms which the Nazis used to refer to aspects of their “Final Solution” – which is another euphemism.
Gripping, spare depictions
Amis has shown he has a mean turn of phrase and a consummate talent for gripping, spare depictions that hits you in the gut. Here’s one:
“The figures that held my attention were not the men in stripes, as they queued or scurried in lines or entangled one another in a kind of centipedal scrum, moving at an unnatural speed, like extras in a silent film, moving faster than their strength or build could bear, as if in obedience to a frantic crank swivelled by a furious hand; the figures that held my attention were not the Kapos who screamed at the prisoners, nor the SS noncoms who screamed at the Kapos, nor the overalled company foremen who screamed at the SS noncoms. No. What held my eye were the figures in city business suits, designers, engineers, administrators from IG Farben plants in Frankfurt, Leverkusen, Ludwigshafen, with leatherbound notebooks and retractable yellow measuring tapes, daintily picking their way past the bodies of the wounded, the unconscious, the dead.” (p. 89)
As the war turns against the Nazis and the Allied forces move in, “Paul Doll” decides he wants to kill his wife. He instructs “Szmul” to shoot her, and if Szmul does not, Doll will deal with the wife he left behind in Poland. Szmul knows he is doomed in any case, that he, like the other ”Sonders” has lost his soul. But he remembers that one time, Hannah Doll greeted him and looked him in the eyes as if he were a normal human being. He tries to shoot himself instead, but Doll shoots him in the face.
The story unfolds in horror upon horror; large numbers, large-scale atrocities, and small, painful nasty moments and bitter disillusionments (the relationship that “Paul Doll” has with his children, or with his prisoner mistress). The descriptions of torture are referred to obliquely, hinted at just enough to turn one’s stomach. Amis describes the burial pits at the camp like this:
“I [Paul Doll] uneasily realized that I could actually hear the Spring Meadow. Said meadow began perhaps 10 metres beyond the mound where Prufer, Stroop, and Erkel stood with their hands pressed to their faces – but you could hear it. You could smell it, of course; and you could hear it. Popping, splatting, hissing.”
The reader is nauseated as much by the image that jumps into your head, as by the unexpected corruption of the usually lovely image of a spring meadow. Never will green fields in war novels be quite the same.
The zone of interest
Ultimately, it’s a commentary on what people become in times of war. Which side they take – how they rationalize evil. Amis particularly questions the Germans’ “world-historical flair for hatred” in that era. Says “Golo Thomsen”: “Under National Socialism you looked in the mirror and saw your soul. You found yourself out. This applied par excellence and a fortiori (by many magnitudes), to the victims, or to those who lived for more than an hour and had time to confront their own reflections. And yet it also applies to everyone else, the malefactors, the collaborators, the witnesses, the conspirators, the outright martyrs (Red Orchestra, White Rose, the men and women of July 20), and even the minor obstructors, like me, and like Hannah Doll. We all discovered, or helplessly revealed, who we were. Who someone really was. That zone of interest.” (pp. 281, 282)
Remembering those who died
Amis dedicates this book to “those who survived and to those who did not”, and his family, and in writing this novel, echoes the action of “Szmul”, who, before he dies, buries his record of the event for others to find. In fact, buried and hidden accounts by members of the Sonderkommando were found after the war at some camps. “On my way over there I will inhume everything I’ve written, in the Thermos flask beneath the gooseberry bush. And, by reason of that, not all of me will die.” (p.265).
Amis also dedicates the book to Primo Levi, perhaps sharing with him his reason for writing about the Holocaust: Primo Levi wrote:
“We, the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in full possession of the terrible truth, are the drowned, the submerged, the annihilated. We speak in their stead by proxy.”
In The Drowned and the Saved Levi describes “the grey zone” that of the privileged prisoner – he was himself a prisoner in the Buna Works. On the website of the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Illona Klein analyses the chapter, “The Memory of the Offense”, “Levi once again takes upon himself the burden of retelling the unspeakable, of seeking explanations (after all he was a scientist trained to seek possible causes of unaccountable phenomena), of justifying himself and his actions during his captivity. He attempts some interpretations and tries to find some reasons – perhaps at times too rational – for an act of genocide, for which there can be no explanation. Almost invisibly interwoven with the poised, exterior calm of Levi’s prose, used to create and define his arguments, is a fine thread of anguish: the fear of not being heard, the fear of not being believed. Other survivors who have chosen to write about their experiences have expressed the same pain. The identical fear has brought many survivors to choose silence, and in silence they still live today.
Perhaps it is this anguish that moved Levi to bear once again the weight of public testimony to mankind: he refuses the point of view that sees survivors as “chosen,” as people who made it through the unimaginable so that they could write and talk about their terrible experience. There can be no logical cause-effect relations in the events of the Holocaust.”
Levy tells the story of the dead by proxy, and so does Amis.
False but compelling narrators
Yet, painting fully rounded, convincing portraits of even the worst Nazis characters – false narrators all of them but nonetheless compelling to read (Bormann and his “normal” family life, focused on breeding more perfect little Aryans; other Nazi leaders with their “normal” perversions; Doll with his “normal” preoccupation with managing the paperwork of mass murder, Golo with his darling aunt, Mrs. Bormann), Amis makes clear that this is not a straight bad guys-versus-good guys situation. Amis does not depict the Nazis as monsters, he depicts them as just going about their business, charming, wealthy, industrious and self-righteous. The reader realizes they are evil from what they think, believe and do in the midst of all this “normalcy”. It creates an almost unbearable tension in the novel. One moment “Paul Doll” is fretting about his children’s horse while waiting on the station platform, the next moment he blithely sends a couple of hundred Jews to their death, even while holding one little girl’s hand. It also emphasizes that this was a complex, many-faceted situation, and not to be over-simplified – even in a novel.
Primo Levi is also is quite clear about this and admonishes the reader never to come to a superficial or hasty verdict: “One must beware of hindsight and stereotypes. More generally, one must beware of the error that consists in judging distant epochs and places with the yardstick that prevails in the here and now…. When it comes to the future, we are just as blind as our fathers.” Again, point taken. As we say on Poppy Day in the Ode of Remembrance, we honour the dead “…lest we forget.”
About the author
Read more about Martin Amis here.
Read my review of Amis’ Lionel ASBO, here.