Horny in Auschwitz

Martin Amis is having trouble with his publishing house in Germany; Hanser-Verlag refuses to print his lecherous love story set in Auschwitz. At a book presentation in London, the famous British author does not take this with his usual sense of humor.

The organizers of the “Financial Times” have projected a huge photo of the author high up on the wall. Martin Amis looks younger there than in person. The British writer is 65 years old, and spends the evening on the stage of Kings Place in the shadow of his younger self. In every respect.
Once upon a time he was the enfant terrible among the writers in Great Britain. The success of books like “Money” or “London Fields” quickly made him a part of the literary elite of his generation. In the 1980s he succeeded to describe with masterly satirical furor the deficiencies of his society. And what does Martin Amis write about now, 30 years later? His 14th novel is called “The Zone of Interest” and is a lecherous love story set in Auschwitz.

It is a home game for Martin Amis. The big hall is filled with fans of his biting sense of humor and chaired by Phillipe Sands, a British law professor, who is also concerned with German fascism and is currently working on a film about the famous sons of Nazis. Amis enjoys this environment and lets himself get carried away describing a sex scene between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun - how he imagines it: “Hitler sits, white napkins as protection in his underpants, in secure distance to Eva Braun and ejaculates without ever getting hard, when she briefly lifts her skirt and reveals her legs.” The hall is in stiches.
And who spoils the party? The Germans. Amis’ publisher Hanser in Munich refused to print the Auschwitz-satire. “The Zone of Interest”, the publishing house confirms to “Profil”, “is not convincing.”
The “Zone of Interest” was, in the bureaucratic language of the Third Reich, the wider territory around the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The houses for the families of SS-officers were located there. Martin Amis describes not only the industrial extermination of the Jews in every detail, but also the daily sex life – or rather the sexual fantasies - of Nazi murderers in even more specificity. All this is told from different perspectives: KZ commander Paul Doll who speaks of the victims only as “pieces”; SS-beau Golo Thomsen, nephew of Martin Bormann, who starts an affair with Doll’s wife Hannah before drifting off into the resistance against Hitler; prisoner Szmuel who works in the “Sonderkommando” and describes himself as the “saddest of all men”.
“I bow in front of the Germans”, says Martin Amis on stage in London. “They really dealt with their past. Unlike the Austrians. They were always more anti-Semitic.” His polite moderator Philippe Sands jumps in: “I hope there are no Austrians present.”
There is at least one Austrian present. She asks: “Mister Amis, do the Germans lack sense of humor?” Amis does not hesitate: “That might be it.” He puts his fingertips on his head and lets them rest there for a moment as if he wants to make sure his hairstyle is not messed up. “Many have warned me not to touch the subject. But fiction is freedom. Is there anything that cannot be written about? And if there are such limits, who defines them?”
The publishing house Hanser, however, never said that one could not write about the Holocaust. The publishers just said: not like this. One of the annoying issues in the novel are the many incorrectly spelled German words. The novel slightly resembles Italian restaurant menus with bad German translations for tourists on the Adriatic coast.
But the German publisher is not the only one feeling uncomfortable with Amis’ new satire. Gallimard in France also pulled out. “I already have a new publisher in Paris and we will find one in Germany, too”, the author says, making it obvious that he feels insulted.
Even at home the reviews about “The Zone of Interest” have not been euphoric. But it seems nobody wants to step on Amis’ toes either. "The Guardian" thinks it is a “bravura black comedy”, the "Financial Times" calls it “discomfiting”. US-historian Lauren Young who teaches International History at the London School of Economics thinks the novel is problematic but shows how "current debates in the UK continue to grapple with the legacy of the Second World War." That some in Britain were quite sympathetic with the Nazis is still not discussed openly – usually Wallis Simpson, lover of short time king Edward VIII., gets all the blame for her propensity for Hitler. And she was an American.
Martin Amis himself is a product of classic British education. His father, Kingsley Amis, was a popular and inventive novelist. Martin studied in Oxford and quickly hooked up with the most important authors and intellectuals of his generation. Together with the late Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie Amis defined the big debates of the eighties in London.
Lately it has become quieter around him. He left England to live in New York with his American wife, herself an author, Isabel Fonseca. And not for the first time is he turning now to the monstrosities of the totalitarian 20th century. His novel “Time’s Arrow” (1991) recounts the fictive autobiography of a Nazi doctor in reverse chronology. In 2002 he ventured out to Soviet history and produced “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the twenty million”, a study of Stalin’s terror reign. A book of non-fiction.
At the end of “The Zone of Interest” Amis let’s us know how many books of famous historians he has read in preparation for this novel. As if he feels the need to show that he is not recklessly writing Holocaust satires without having done proper research. Several times in his book and on stage he mentions Primo Levi and Paul Celan and speaks of his respect for the authors and their accounts of survival. Unfortunately their literary delicateness and historical credibility is not apparent in “The Zone of Interest”. The accumulation of clichés, tastelessness and senseless language mix (“Biggish Titten”) exhaust even the most willing reader. The book impresses neither as a work of literature nor of enlightenment. Amis fails in his aspiration to draw satire out of the enormous tension between the monstrosity of the industrial extermination of Jews in the Second World War and the banality of horny SS-men in Auschwitz.
The comparably gentle love story between the wife of the KZ-commander and the nephew of Martin Bormann does not save the book. It might still be “surprising” for Martin Amis “that SS-officers brought their wives and children to Auschwitz”. For many Germans and Austrians, however, this is not news. It is part of their family history. Maybe this is the small but defining reason why Germans still don’t easily laugh about the Holocaust.
At one point in the novel, commandant Paul Doll alias Rudolf Höß flirts with a prisoner. He points at the number on her arm and says jokingly: “And this is probably your telephone number?”

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz