Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones was originally written in French ( Les Bienveillantes) and won France's Prix Goncourt (often called the French Booker, though the Prix Goncourt has been around much longer and, having Proust among its laureates, the Goncourt is, arguably, more prestigious). Quite a distinction for a novel written by an American. The Kindly Ones has been a tremendous success in France, but it has also generated heated and very interesting debate both in France and elsewhere in Europe. I think the novel is good, but the debate is crucial.
So, first things first, the novel: The Kindly Ones is a first-person narrative set in France, Russia and Germany during the Second World War. It is the memoir of an SS Captain (a Hauptsturmführer, actually) named Maximilian Aue, a committed National Socialist. Aue is on hand to witness some of the worst Nazi atrocities of the Second World War (Babi Yar, in particular), and the first 400 pages of the novel are devoted to the heartless (and coolly described) massacre of thousands of Eastern European Jews. It's harrowing.
The rest of the novel is also filled with horrific details, but by the time Hauptsturmführer Aue gets to Stalingrad, a gradual change comes to the narrative. Reality and fantasy begin to switch places, very like a person coming in and out of consciousness. The destruction of Berlin and the end of the war are depicted as an unpleasant and deeply odd psycho-sexual nightmare.
The centre of controversy, for some readers of the novel, is Max Aue himself, the narrator. Though he is, in some ways, a representative Nazi (that is, a fervent believer in Hitler's genius, a defender of the right of Germany to slaughter its enemies, a man who will do his duty, whatever the personal or psychic cost), he is at the same time utterly unrepresentative of the average German soldier. He is homosexual, incestuous, as familiar with Greek and French culture as he is with German. He meets all the top-ranking Nazis (Speer, Himmler, Eichmann, Bormann and even Hitler, who, in one strange sequence, he imagines as a rabbi). And he may be matricidal. Though we can trust some of what he says, we cannot trust all. Worse, as the novel progresses, we can trust him less and less.
Now, unreliable narrators are business as usual for the postmodern novel, but it has caused real problems for some readers. Most significantly for Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, an influential documentary on the destruction of the Jews in Poland. Lanzmann, whose movie partly inspired Littell to write the novel, has praised the accuracy of the historical details in The Kindly Ones, but he questioned the value of the fictional in this setting, and he wondered if the uncritical depiction of Aue's anti-Semitism would not give comfort to Nazi sympathizers. I think Lanzmann's qualms are pertinent and they bring up questions that every reader will have to resolve for herself.
The Kindly Ones is a work of art and it brings to its subject things only art can
For me, The Kindly Ones is two distinct books. One is an account of Nazi atrocities; the other is a novel about a time in human history. The account of German wrongdoing is vivid but monotonous. The details are credible and horrifying and we need to be reminded of them, but very few of the Jews are given enough time onstage to register as anything but victims. They come on to be slaughtered. Their humanity is a theoretical question raised by their killers, most of whom step on the throats of their better moral selves in order to go on killing.
So, The Kindly Ones does run the risk of burying the victims of the Shoah deeper by obliterating them further. If it were a work of straight history, a retelling of Raul Hilberg's history of the Holocaust, this might not be as troubling. As history (which it does not pretend to be), The Kindly Ones is something of a failure.
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