The Zone of Interest. Amis and Auschwitz. Aren’t we depressed enough already?

I was completely in the wrong place for this – Robin Williams’s death, ISIS atrocities, the new anti-Semitism, Islamism gaining ground worldwide.

Do we need to be told the Holocaust was a bad idea? Yes, as often as possible.

However, David Sexton rather sceptical:

Speaking of bad taste, I was especially miffed when a blood-soaked barbarian recently described battlefield Jihad as ‘a cure for depression’. Way to tarnish my brand, fella. (This blog used to be called ‘A Cure for Depression. It was supposed to generate a new age self book about beating depression – currently about ten years late.)

James Runcie not totally won over, another excellent critique.

I felt queasy ever since this was announced but the publishers have done a brilliant job selling The Zone of Interest as a love story, and using a marvellous fable in the blurb, like movie producers putting all the best bits in the trailer,


‘There was an old story about a king who asked his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. Instead, it showed you your soul – it showed you who you really were. But the king couldn’t look into the mirror without turning away, and nor could his courtiers. No one could.

What happens when we discover who we really are? And how do we come to terms with it? Fearless and original, The Zone of Interest is a violently dark love story set against a backdrop of unadulterated evil, and a vivid journey into the depths and contradictions of the human soul.’



House of Meetings, set in a Russian Gulag, felt more organic, certainly more satisfying.

If you’re such a brilliant essayist why write a novel, especially using familiar material? If there’s an unbearably moving account of an atrocity you think: shouldn’t I be reading this in the original?

Mark Diston, (great Amis name, see Lionel Asbo) wondered, correctly, why on earth a Nazi officer would be discussing WH Auden (in The Register but that’s literature for you. Doesn’t have to make any sense, apparently. At least not if it’s got ‘Martin Amis’ on the cover.

Overall, it’s bitty, doesn’t progress organically. Part of the ending is moving, reminiscent of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, but the aftermath just lists the fate of some other protagonists, in a perfunctory manner. The afterword is long and sententious, not helped by the picture of Martin Boorman’s fat, smirking face. That reminded me of Ricky Gervais, just to put the tin helmet on it.

Night Train purposefully didn’t explain suicide. This doesn’t explain the Holocaust. I hope he’s not going to not explain anything else grim.

A very minor point: I don’t know what the big whoop is with long exotic names – Mike Szabatura in Experience and longer, crunchier ones here. Others mentioned that as a positive.

Could be wrong, will be re-reading. It is undeniably haunting but not actually that funny. My heart strings remained untwanged. Some memorable, poetic sentences but far too much wallowing in long, ugly German words. I lived there, had two German partners but I don’t want to read that much Deutsch. If you’re trying to say that the language itself has something to do with fascism, as briefly mooted, well, ISIS don’t speak Deutsch. Neither did the Khmer Rouge and many others too depressing to mention.

Ah well. Despite some disappointments I’ve been hooked on AMis since the late seventies. I keep coming back because I’m Self-ish. I want another narrator like Money’s John Self. And there isn’t another comedic literary writer, with such wordplay or the love of low life.

I suppose he has earned the right to be transgressive. Not every experiment succeeds. But however sincere he is this still looks like a career move – you won’t get as much acclaim for a contemporary comedy.

Most critics disagree. So far.

Readers, not so concerned about looking good, may be less positive.

ps He admits it’s inconclusive and depressing (Today radio 4). So if you already have enough puzzling gloom this may be a tad superfluous.

If you’re up to the ice bucket challenge for the soul, it’s undeniably haunting.


“Manic Depression. The Mike Tyson of mental diseases.” Martin Amis Night Train


You Don’t Need Closure. Oliver Burkeman. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking Part 2. Memento Mori. The Hit. John Hurt and Terence Stamp

The chief value of The Antidote is to stop you feeling guilty if, like me, you never even tried positive thinking, knowing instinctively it wouldn’t work.

This was the right decision but guilt lingers, as if it’s your fault for not falling for bogus remedies like religion or positive thinking. Throughout approximately fortyfive years of depression, I also stopped taking various anti-depressants and abandoned several therapies and twelve step groups. I’m currently thirteen stepping Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous (while drinking or using extremely rarely). Perhaps I could start Self Help Anonymous. Maybe that is what this blog is.

SOME GOOD NEWS. (Finally!)

Towards the end of The Antidote we are informed we don’t need closure. Which cheered me during the long process of not being able to finish this promised part 2 of…

“I’m not into endings,” someone told me around the millennium. It’s taken me fifteen years to catch up with Sarah, whom some people called Sarah-tonin because she was a serotonin boost, she cheered people up. I filed this under new age nonsense, preferring to be profoundly miserable than explore change. There is now a name for Sarah’s solution, albeit a hideous neologism: openture, the opposite of closure. Really? I will never repeat that word, unless threatened or offered money. Unfortunately there isn’t another term for the acceptance of loose threads or, as used in The Antidote, the realisation that there may not be sustainable happiness.

Does the journey-not-the-destination mindset have a name in Zen or Taoism? Something Japanese or Chinese? Maybe. Once more John C Parkin’s ‘Fxxk It’ surfaces from the sub-consciousness.

F**k it is a failsafe life raft, for whenever the waters get choppy.


Be that as it may, (surely ‘be-that-as-it-may-ism’ would be better than ‘opent**e’?), one ending that isn’t open is death. The Stoics recommended regular contemplation of the inevitable and so does Oliver Burkeman. This was no use to Philip Larkin but it is hard to think what would have been. There’s no pleasing some people.

Terence Stamp’s fugitive supergrass in The Hit has had about a decade to prepare for his death. His seraphic calm creeps out John Hurt’s assassin, Top existential bantz here.

GORGEOUS music by Paco Pena. A superb film in many ways.

A much more focussed discussion of just about everything in the book is here:

Scarily well-informed and articulate, the host of radio show This Is Hell, Chuck Mertz, has not only read The Antidote, he has practically memorised it. Oliver Burkeman is very well adjusted, with a natural laugh. Before The Antidote I might have resented either of them for being happier than I am, or just less of a maniac. I am now less deluded. Less Deceived as Larkin might have said?

While we’re here I sometimes get distracted by Larkin’s startling resemblance to Eric Morecambe. (And there was no doubt what he thought of life so far: ‘Rubbish!’)

Nearly at the end of the road. We don’t need closure but one of Larkin’s conclusions might fit. It’s almost as good as ‘F**k it’: ‘Get Stewed. Books are a load of crap’.


…if we tire of fantasising about being Dracula or a Western gunslinger, as in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, but will not be a victim to alcohol, damaging others in the process, we can always use a manual of coping strategies.

Oliver Burkeman is published under ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’ in the Guardian. Well, it will if you want it to. (He must have caught some American positivity living in Brooklyn.) What is indisputably true: The Antidote is not a load of crap. Quite the opposite.