Monday, October 20, 2014

Excerpt: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Every once in a while, a book comes along that shakes up the literary scene. This fall, Martin Amis’ new novel, The Zone of Interest, did just that. The book, which is an unlikely love story set in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, has garnered all sorts of interesting conversations and debates. We’re pleased to welcome Mr. Amis on November 16 when he will be joined by author Ron Rosenbaum for a discussion of the book as part of our 92Y@MJH series. Below is an excerpt of the book.

3. SZMUL: Sonder

Ihr seit achzen johr, we whisper, und ihr hott a fach.

Once upon a time there was a king, and the king commissioned

his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show

you your reflection. It showed you your soul—it showed you who you

really were.

The wizard couldn’t look at it without turning away. The king

couldn’t look at it. The courtiers couldn’t look at it. A chestful of treasure

was offered to any citizen in this peaceful land who could look at

it for sixty seconds without turning away. And no one could.

I find that the KZ is that mirror. The KZ is that mirror, but with

one difference. You can’t turn away.

We are of the Sonderkommando, the SK, the Special Squad, and

we are the saddest men in the Lager. We are in fact the saddest men in

the history of the world. And of all these very sad men I am the saddest.

Which is demonstrably, even measurably true. I am by some distance

the earliest number, the lowest number—the oldest number.

As well as being the saddest men who ever lived, we are also the most

disgusting. And yet our situation is paradoxical.

It is difficult to see how we can be as disgusting as we unquestionably

are when we do no harm.

The case could be made that on balance we do a little good. Still, we

are infinitely disgusting, and also infinitely sad.

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


Yet we also move among the living. So we say, “Viens donc, petit

marin. Accroche ton costume. Rapelle-toi le numéro. Tu es quatrevingts

trois!” And we say, “Faites un n’ud avec les lacets, Monsieur. Je

vais essayer de trouver un cintre pour vôtre manteau. Astrakhan! C’est

noison d’agneaux, n’est-ce pas?

After a major Aktion we typically receive a fifth of vodka or schnapps,

five cigarettes, and a hundred grams of sausage made from bacon, veal,

and pork suet. While we are not always sober, we are never hungry and

we are never cold, at least not at night. We sleep in the room above the

disused crematory (hard by the Monopoly Building), where the sacks of

hair are cured.

When he was still with us, my philosophical friend Adam used to say,

We don’t even have the comfort of innocence. I didn’t and I don’t agree.

I would still plead not guilty.

A hero, of course, would escape and tell the world. But it is my feeling

that the world has known for quite some time. How could it not, given

the scale?

There persist three reasons, or excuses, for going on living: first, to bear

witness, and, second, to exact mortal vengeance. I am bearing witness;

but the magic looking glass does not show me a killer. Or not yet.

Third, and most crucially, we save a life (or prolong a life) at the rate of

one per transport. Sometimes none, sometimes, two—an average of

one. And 0.01 per cent is not 0.00. They are invariably male youths.

It has to be effected while they’re leaving the train; by the time the

lines form for the selection—it’s already too late.

Ihr seit achzen johr alt, we whisper, und ihr hott a fach. Sic achtzehn Jahre alt

sind, und Sie haben einen Handel. Vous avez dix-huit ans, et vous avez un


You are eighteen years old, and you have a trade.

Excerpted from THE ZONE OF INTEREST by Martin Amis.

Copyright © 2014 by Martin Amis. Excerpted by permission of

Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without

permission in writing from the publisher.

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