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Jonathan Littell
Jonathan Littell

A harrowing work of art Add to ...

The fictional side of things brings up questions similar to those we're confronted with when an artist such as Sylvia Plath, for instance, uses Holocaust imagery to depict her relationship to her father. What right does the artist have to use something as horrific as the destruction of European Jewry to heighten personal or aesthetic matters? Doesn't this reduce the horrors of the Holocaust to the merely personal? Or does it, rather, uncover the human and intimate roots of hatred and destruction by returning them to their place of origin: the human imagination? Mindless slaughter, unthinking hatred ... these things begin at home, don't they?

If Claude Lanzmann's objections are to the mixing of history with fiction, German critical objection to The Kindly Ones has been an objection to the overblown "Hollywood" Nazi that is Max Aue, the narrator. Aue is too cold, too transgressive (gay and he has sex with his sister too? What next?) and most of the Nazis are too obviously mad or monstrous.

This is just as pertinent an objection as Lanzmann's. And it reminds me of an anecdote told of playwright Edward Bond when he was working with Peter Stein, the great German stage director. Stein could not understand the psychology of one of Bond's characters, couldn't understand the character's motivation. After much discussion, Bond pointed out that his character was insane. But how do we know he's insane? Stein asked. Well, answered Bond, he's a Nazi, isn't he? A reasonable argument for anyone who is not German. For Peter Stein, and indeed for most Germans, Nazis are "normal" human beings: fathers, uncles, brothers. They are not obviously insane, not at all. And this inability to understand the normalcy of Nazi behaviour is what is counted a failure of The Kindly Ones by some German critics.

Again, it's a good point, as Lanzmann's was a good point. But here, too, The Kindly Ones is judged by its failure to conform to or serve reality. However, The Kindly Ones is a work of art and it brings to its subject things only art can. To begin with, although it is ostensibly about the Shoah told from the side of a German soldier, it is actually a long meditation on transgression and the limits of the human imagination. Max Aue is homosexual, incestuous, matricidal. He is obsessed with feces, sperm and blood. Everything about him is about crossing a line. Why?

In order to rethink where our lines actually are, to think through what "limits" mean: moral limits, aesthetic limits, sexual limits. The great act of the imagination here is not only the imagining of what it would be like to be a Nazi (and, as Littell is a Jew, this is already a sacred act), it is also in trying to push the imagination to its furthest limits and, in doing so, to reaffirm limits, to reaffirm humanity. That is: It's only from outside of town that one knows where and what "town" is.

Is it okay, then, to use the Holocaust to talk about limits, to use human suffering in a novel of this sort? I think so, yes. Sometimes you have to dare. And that dare is to Littell's credit, but it isn't as if he were writing something unworthy or cheap. The Kindly Ones is allusive and dense. Its allusions are to works of literature (in particular Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels and Aeschylus's Oresteia); music (German as well as French, Couperin and Rameau above all), and philosophy (Kant).

Each of its seven sections is named for music created for dances (Toccata, Allemandes, Courante etc.). And, of course, in a novel about the fatal relationship between Germans and Jews, the nature of dance and couples (brother, sister, twins, friends) is very much at issue. An impressive array of European culture and ideas unfolds before the reader. It informs the action, but also situates it squarely in Europe, a place of great beauty and mindless depravity.

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