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on 4 May 2015
It’s like some accident befell Martin Amis half way through his career. Without ever quite writing the masterpiece expected of him he did write a series of brilliant and very funny novels. Then, all of a sudden, he collapsed. He lost his mojo. Yellow Dog is probably the worst novel in history written by a first rate novelist. Since then we’ve had House of Meetings, The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, all lacking the vitality and high wire virtuosity of his earlier work. Now he’s chosen to write about the Holocaust for the second time. In his afterword he tells us how difficult it has always been for him to gain entrance into the Holocaust, to secure any kind of understanding of its “wild fantastic disgrace”, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip”, until he stumbled upon an interview with Primo Levi in which Levi said the actions of the Nazis should always remain beyond comprehension because the act of comprehension is, in some way, to find justification. So Amis makes no effort in his novel to comprehend what happened at Auschwitz – here named Kat Zet; rather, he focuses predominantly on the banality and ethical undertow of its evil, distils the evil into workplace and social tensions at the camp, most notably, sexual rivalry. The insane industrial slaughter takes place offstage (we draw on our own stock of brutal images to provide the pathos), its stink the most pervasive toxin of the reeling barbarity of the camp.
The novel has three rotating narrators. Doll, the camp commandant is psychotic, deluded, vain, self-pitying, pulsing with self-righteous bluster and as such a familiar Amis creation. Thomsen, the protected playboy nephew of Martin Bormann, is some kind of middle manager responsible for the camp’s workforce and the production of synthetic rubber. He is more morally ambivalent. To begin with he sees Doll’s wife, the most vocal conscientious objector in the novel, as the latest challenge for his sexual vanity but his blossoming feeling for her begins to humanise him. The third narrator is Szmul, head of the Sonderkommando, the workforce of prisoners detailed to dispose of the bodies - "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 grinders".
In a nutshell, Doll is the perpetrator of the horror, Thomsen the bystander and Szmul the victim. Without question the most difficult character for Amis to imagine is Szmul, the electric insanity of the work he’s forced to do every day beggaring belief. Somewhere in the novel Amis states that the Third Reich forced people to see who they were, made it impossible to hide from themselves. Szmul though and the ethical and physical horror he undergoes every day, not surprisingly, eludes Amis. But you feel this is intentional. Szmul is a ghost, remains a ghost throughout the novel and as such, conversely, works better than the other two narrators because he is what haunts everyone.
What we have is a novel set in Auschwitz that is almost bereft of dramatic tension. It’s engaging and highly intelligent without ever being truly enthralling or disturbing. The writing is consistently good without ever being thrillingly brilliant. As you’d expect with a writer of Amis’ exalted comic gifts he does a great job of mocking the Nazis. But all in all I found it an oddly unemotional experience. The aftermath, when after the war Thomsen seeks out Hanna, is genuinely moving but overall this novel is not a moving experience. Ultimately I’m not sure why Amis wrote this novel. Time’s Arrow was a brilliant dramatization of the monumental insanity of the Holocaust – to understand which will always be like trying to decode the speaking in tongues of the mentally deranged. Why, when you’ve succeeded once, attempt the same subject again?
Incidentally, Hannah will do nothing to change the widespread conviction that Amis can’t write women.
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on 19 September 2016
I've read all his books. I'm a great admirer. I even like some that many fans dislike (Yellow Dog, The Pregnant Widow). But I think he makes a big mistake with this. It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Not just because of the subject matter, which of course leaves far worse than a bad taste.

It feels to me that his attempt to use artistry and mere cleverness to mould such a terrible subject, to use as mere grist to his novelist mill, is a desecration. (And I'm not the kind to typically bandy such a word about.) Were this novel to create some great fresh perspective, or illuminate in a previously unimagined way, then such an exercise would be worthwhile. But it doesn't.

It feels rather that this is driven by Amis's too unquestioning belief in the universal power of his authorial eye and creativity to somehow transform our appreciation of whatever subject it chooses to explore. Since the beginning of his career he has shown a proclivity to dive into the worst of human nature, probably because it gave him such great material for entertainingly caustic satire. But, as his career advanced, I think he felt the need to transmute this into something with more gravitas. Not an unusual or mistaken evolution in itself, but there are some subjects one must think very carefully about one's motivations, and the benefits to be gained, before tackling.

It's a decent book, engaging (like driving past a motorway accident, it's hard not to be fascinated in such horror), well-written, imaginative. But its tone is rather flat, which is astonishing considering the events. In trying to portray and unpack the final solutions's banality he ends up reinforcing it. Staggeringly, considering the subject matter, the primary emotions conveyed are petty and mundane - tedium, irritation, marital discord, executive rivalry, discomfort, etc.

Personally, I am troubled by my own lack of trouble in imagining that humans could do such a thing as the Holocaust. We have done it throughout history. We do it now. As soon as you imagine others as 'not us', then all else easily follows. I sleep soundly in my bed while millions in this world lead horrible lives of poverty, famine, disease and mistreatment. As I'm sure do most of you. We do the same to billions of animals (I'm not a vegetarian) so as soon as we categorise other humans as equivalent to, or worse than, animals we can easily turn off any empathy and compassion.

This is a subject that can only be tackled by a documentarist who is committed to a rigorous presentation of fact. All else is to reduce it. M.A. reduces it somehow. And I felt the lesser for having read it.

I'm looking forward to his next book though.
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on 28 November 2014
An unusual but terrifying look at the nuts and bolts of the holocaust through a love (lust?) story.
Mr. Amis is a master story teller and this rates well with my personal favourite, London Fields.
I have never failed to derive all sorts of satisfaction from the varying themes of his novels.
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on 9 June 2016
This is a stomach churning and humorous book in equal measure. The humour is derived from stark ironies and brutal trivialisation of cruelty. Be prepared for the horrors of the final solution and the bland perpetrators of same. This book will sicken you to your core but its author's skill in narrating a folk tale of genocidal proportions will compel you to finish it as quickly as possible. On reading it, it leaves a patina of ash on your soul. Well done to Amis on even attempting to tackle such a theme. He succeeds with aplomb.
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on 3 December 2014
Not having read Martin Amis before I have clearly been missing out. What a terrifying view of the holocaust from a German viewpoint. The depths of depravity being plumbed at the same time wanton destruction of innocent lives leaves a horrible aftertaste when the book is finally finished. Gripping, thought provoking and leaving me wanting to know more.
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on 18 September 2015
No other author I've read can simultaneously manage to capture both humour and horror in the very same paragraph in quite the way Amis does. This is a book which leaves the reader laughing one moment, horrified the next; a great read, and a wonderfully diverse assault on the senses.
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on 2 June 2016
This novel is knew of the most obscene things I have ever read, and by that I do not mean that it is bad or that it is "dirty", but what it does do is present an unflinching portrait of the madness, cruelty and sheer evil of the Third Reich, a subject Amis tackled with more originality in Time's Arrow. This is still hugely readable however.
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on 28 April 2016
It's mesmerising to wonder how Amis can immerse himself in such a subject - in fact the huge variety of subjects he tackles from book to book. As always, I find there are the odd sections that I just cannot follow, despite trying a few times (does he do that to test us?!), but the rest is truly amazing, despite the harrowing nature of the setting.
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on 20 September 2014
Martin Amis's best book this century, by quite some distance. I finished it and immediately read it again. Unlike the majority of books with a historical setting, you do not get the author's research rammed down your throat. Amis is so immersed in the subject - witness his dissertation at the end of the book - that the backdrop to the story seeps through every page of the book. The story itself is beautifully rendered. Close to perfect.
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on 1 November 2014
I have read Amis before and find him enjoyable and annoying in equal measure. This book is no different. Every time I started to admire his writing he seemed to throw in some gratuitous sex or violence - almost deliberately to shock it seemed. Couldn't help feeling that the premise was excellent but the execution a little to inconsistent.
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