Can love survive against that most hellish of backdrops, the Nazi concentration camp? It's a question that Amis (Lionel Asbo, 2012, etc.) probes in his latest novel, an indelible and unsentimental exploration of the depths of the human soul.
Opening in August 1942, the book's events are narrated from the
viewpoints of three distinct characters. Arctic-eyed Golo Thomsen, a German
officer, looks every bit the Aryan ideal, ensuring him a lusty welcome in beds
across the Reich. He also happens to be the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s
private secretary, though his personal views regarding the Fuhrer's campaign
are a good deal more opaque. Paul Doll is the queasily named camp commandant, a
doltish yet wily drunkard whose cool wife, Hannah, has caught Thomsen's eye. As
for Szmul, back in Poland he was a tender husband and father. In the camp,
he is a member of the Sonderkommando, forced to herd fellow inmates into the
gas chambers and dispose of their bodies. It’s Szmul who recalls a fable about
a king who commissioned a magic mirror that reflected one’s soul. Nobody in the
kingdom could look at it for 60 seconds without turning away. The camp, he
says, is that mirror. Only you can’t turn away. As Thomsen contrives to woo
Hannah, word reaches the Officers’ Club that German forces are surrounded at
Stalingrad. Doll becomes increasingly paranoid and Szmul, a bearer of perilous
Nazi secrets, strives to find a way to reclaim his life. With malice rampant, absurdity lurks in the shadows, drawn out
by twisted details like bureaucratic euphemisms or the fact that Jews are made
to pay for their own tickets aboard the trains bringing them to the camp.
Brawny and urgent, it’s unmistakably Amis, though without the gimmickry of Time's Arrow (1991).