Martin Amis is a child of the 20th century, both literally and by literary preoccupation. He was born in the aftermath of World War II and grew up in the shadow of the unholy trinity of great ideologies - fascism, communism and capitalism. He has made a career of grappling with them, and the questions they raise about human nature. And after his last-but-one sortie, The Pregnant Widow (in which he gamely stared down feminism and the "sexual revolution"), he has judged himself battle-hardened and ready to return to the biggest question the 20th century has to offer: the "why" of the Holocaust.
Unlikely as it seems, Amis' window on the Final Solution is a triangular one - a love triangle set against the horror of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp at the very height of German power and when the "Final Solution" - the systematic programme of genocide directed against European Jews - was in full swing. Angelus "Golo" Thomsen is a high-ranking member of the SS, well-connected (his uncle is Martin Bormann, Hitler's personal secretary) and the very model of the Aryan man - tall, chiselled, blond and with "Arctic eyes of cobalt blue".
For reasons that have as much to do with power as with his looks, he is a prolific womaniser. The latest object of his affection is Hannah Doll, the very model of German womanhood - tall, sleek, buxom, beautiful. The only problem is, she is the wife of Paul Doll, the commandant of the concentration camp.
Amis admits another pole to the eternal triangle: the relationship between Paul Doll and Szmul, his Sonderkommandofuhrer - the chief of the group of Jews enlisted by the Nazis to perform the menial work that the extermination of millions of human beings entailed: herding them into the gas chambers, robbing their corpses of jewelry and orthodontic metal and stoking them into the crematoria, exhuming buried bones and counting them for the sake of precise record-keeping.
Mostly, members of this group of people didn't last long. As "bearers of secrets", they were regularly murdered and replaced. But Szmul is different; he has made himself indispensible to Doll, and has served in his ghastly capacity for several months. He fascinates Doll, and is conveniently always there at hand as the object of Doll's compulsive sadism.
As all parties attend the news of the German Army's fortunes at the gates of Stalingrad - the defining moment of the war - the erotic rivalry between Thomsen and Doll is sublimated into a race to find out for Hannah what happened to an old flame of hers, who disappeared in the early days of Hitler's rise to power. Meanwhile, Thomsen and Hannah independently wage their own campaigns of "minor obstruction": Hannah is withholding her favours from Doll, making no secret of her contempt for him.
Thomsen is assisting the camp inmates who are sabotaging the new synthetic rubber plant they are supposed to be constructing. And Doll is taunting poor Szmul with the appointed day and hour of his death, and with that of Szmul's wife, whom Doll is striving to locate in Poland.
Not much joy in all this, you would think, but strangely, it is both gruelling and uplifting.
The fun (if that's the word) is in beholding its sheer virtuosity. The writing is wonderful - as usual, Amis refuses to condescend, for example, by declining to translate the German words and phrases with which he gleefully peppers his prose - and the characters no less so. You sense Amis thoroughly enjoyed creating the prissy, self-pitying, self-loathing, unshakeably entitled and (of course) demonically nasty Doll, based on the real-life Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss - a man who found it necessary to correct the prosecutor in his war crimes trial when he alleged that he (Hoss) had killed three and a half million people. No, said Hoss. Only two and a half million. The rest died of disease and starvation.
Of course, that's what makes it gruelling. It happened. This stuff really happened.
Amis would never claim to have answered the great question: "why" did it happen? But you'll never hear it posed better, or more powerfully.
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape $37.99).