Martin Amis’s new novel, Zone of Interest, is the story of a love-triangle among members of the Nazi officialdom at Auschwitz. By focusing on the inner lives of the perpetrators of genocide, writes Cynthia Ozick, Amis normalizes them. Zone of Interest thereby “makes the best argument against itself.” The problem resides in something inherent in the nature of fiction:
Scripture, which purports to be history, is mainly impatient with interiority. It is God, we are told, who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and after this no more need be said. Pharaoh’s wickedness is absolute, dyed in the marrow, opaque; no light can be leached from it. We are not permitted to know more than the intractable breadth and depth of this wickedness—nothing of Pharaoh’s psychology, nothing of his inner musings, nothing of his everyday, how he was appareled, whether he was sometimes in his cups, or if he bantered with his courtiers, how often he summoned women of the palace, or of the brickworks, to his bed; or if he ever faltered in remorse. God is a judge, not a novelist; this is the meaning of a God-hardened heart: the deed’s the thing.
Novelists, mini-gods though they may be, do not harden hearts, and inner musings are their métier. A deed, however foul, has an origin, or call it a backstory, and every backstory is a kind of explanation, and every explanation is on its way to becoming, if not quite an absolution, then certainly a diagnosis. And then the evildoer (if such an absolutist term is admissible), having been palpated for diagnosis, is reduced from zealous criminal to one possessed of a “condition” not of his own making—insanity, perhaps, or the inevitable outcome of an ideological rearing. In literary fiction . . . there are no outright villains, and even a Pharaoh would be interestingly introspective.