I don’t know if I was already thinking about mortality so intensely before reading this book, but I’m now in a thanatopic loop after finishing it. I’ve read more upsetting books on this topic, granted (Night, by Elie Wiesel), but this one seems to scream and lurch inside me when I read it, and why? Because its monstrosity comes from the mundanity of human beings.
Moral Contemplations of a Murderer
Holocaust Memorial Day passed a little while ago and the false memory of my family hung over me, as if I’d known them. I’m told there was a six year-old in that train whose blood, under a microscope, looked a little like mine does now. Alongside that faceless child, there were many more, distant aunts, uncles, traditions and stories, all murdered, all now a full-stop in my family’s history. I don’t even know their real name; British Border officials tried their faithful best, but Yakob’s surname, a now disturbingly rare and glaringly Jewish amalgamation of nouns that followed my great-grandfather, my grandfather and then my mother, is really just a Anglophonic guess at a funny foreign name. When Szmul, the only Jewish narrator in The Zone of Interest, works with the trains unloading new arrivals destined for the showers and the vans and the rifle butts, I wonder if he ever met them.
In my previous post, I quoted Paul Doll’s repeated claims of normality, then later in the novel (p.222), in another moment of introspection (sans the self-justified intentions of rape), the reader is audience to odd, near-moral contemplations. Could it be that Paul Doll is feeling the membrane of the Nazi bubble thin? Whether it be intentionally so or not on the part of Amis or his narrator, there appears to be a suspect ignorance that sits beneath these lines – it almost feels as though Doll is asking the questions simply to be viewed as moral by the reader. He swears never to allow them to recur, but would they have any effect if they did? Perhaps the only moral truth demonstrated is that Doll clearly knows that they are the right questions to ask oneself.
“If what we’re doing is good, why does it smell so lancingly bad? On the ramp at night, why do we feel the ungainsayable need to get so brutishly drunk? […] Why did the lunatics, and only the lunatics, seem to like it here? […]
. . . There is a placard on the office wall that says, My loyalty is my honour and my honour is my loyalty. Strive. Obey. JUST BELIEVE! And I find it highly suggestive that out word for ideal obedience – Kadavergehorsam – has a corpse in it (which is doubly curious, because cadavers are the most refractory things on earth). The duteousness of the corpse. The conformity of the corpse. Here at the KL, in the cremas, in the pits: they’re dead. But then so are we, we who obey . . .”
Death and cadavers, it reads a little cheaply to me if taken wholly seriously.
Literary Fiction, An Awkward Fit
“The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read [literary fiction].”
― Benjamin Franklin (apparently)
Have you ever finished a book and wondered if you actually got it? Coming away from a book about the Holocaust and then reiterating that the Holocaust was bad is, sort of, well, obvious, after all. Barbarism is laid out in the novel, given more room for cognition, breathing replaced with an arrythmic stutter, and it made an impact, an original one at that, but did I miss something? I feel like I did.
For example, whilst I noticed Doll’s narration continuously using numerical figures where the actual noun would have been standard – “1stly” instead of “firstly” – I’m not exactly sure why Amis did it (and it does feel like Amis did it, not his narrator). Reluctantly, I searched online and found nothing substantial enough to answer me – I suspect that until a specialist in Stylistics writes on the matter, I won’t be satisfied.
I mentioned in the previous post that I was tentatively enjoying the lack of description for physical surroundings, and although I remain happy with such an approach to a novel, then add in a somewhat disorientating pace to the final third of the novel and the whole thing began to thoroughly confuse me.
My point is that I finished what was a powerfully savage, and sometimes exquisite, book feeling unsure about what had actually happened from start to finish. And so it joins the ranks of those novels that I have loved the process of reading, though perhaps not found enough of a story to feel connected to it by the end. Was this literary fiction, and therefore the reason I didn’t keep up?
I think Michael Hofmann did a superb job in reviewing the book less favourably than I would and that’s where I take some reassurance that my confusion isn’t without some grounding at least.
Max the Cat
As I researched around cats in literature, Alison Flood reminded me in her Guardian Books blog of the wonderful tale of Emir Filipović, an academic who, whilst researching his PhD, came across a 15th century manuscript stained by the pawprints of a cat, doubtlessly vying for the author’s attention. “[T]he past was full of ‘normal’ everyday events, just like today,” Emir tells Alison, “and a picture such as the one with the cat pawprints tends to remind everybody that people who lived in the past were not much different than ourselves.”
Max, whose mousing skills I quote in my previous post, is character who has no dialogue. Some would say not, claiming he’s just a literary device, easily disposed of when the time comes, and that’s fine, if you’re willing to say the same of the Jews who are wordlessly loaded off the trains and murdered, but still, just like Max, form a living, feeling force in that fictional world.
This legendary mouser, no doubt, mirrors the plot and the ideologies within it: a ferocious killer unconcerned with either end of the scale, at cruelty or compassion, who eventually turns on those he serves. The idea that he serves anyone but himself is dubious, of course, and I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ comments, “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”
And so here it is: I’ve always entertained my own brand of rebellion, one encapsulated by the very philosophy that I believe cats too embody, the basic and life-altering, “Fuck you.”
It’s not grounded in morality, a sadist can use it as much as a pacifist can, after all, but instead it’s looking at those in power square in the eyes, unmoving, those who would rule you totally given the chance, and saying, fuck you. When Max coolly clawed at Thomsen, drawing blood, I smiled reading it, envisioning this cat empowered by a simple philosophy. Perhaps too disposable is the idea that this feline betrayal mirrors Thomsen’s changing values in the story, or his odd humanity in the constant setting of his depravity, far too motif/thematic, too school literature lesson, perhaps; I honestly cannot pin any real, justifiable analysis on Max. But it is a glorious Fuck you, in any case, and for that I won’t forget him.
I whipped my hand away – but not fast enough; there was a thin red stripe on the base of my thumb, which in a minute or so, I knew, would start to seep.
“You little shit,” I said.
He didn’t flee, he didn’t hide. He lay there on his back staring at me with his claws unsheathed.