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Review: The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

So is it a great novel, then? It's been compared to War and Peace, but no, I don't think it is great, not in its execution. In this English translation, the language is not particularly memorable. There is little humour, though much wit. At times, it's as if Littell were trying to shoehorn absolutely everyone of significance in: Himmler, Eichmann, Speer etc. Also, unlike War and Peace, The Kindly Ones is not, in its characterizations, morally complex: We know, and the narrator knows, that the Nazis are on the wrong side of history, that they can only be defended by the narrator, their behaviour justified, if possible. So, the characters can't be said to waver morally. The kindly ones (or the furies, the Greek goddesses who embodied the anger of the dead and who punished those who committed unforgivable sins) are after almost everyone, here.

All of that said, The Kindly Ones is a work of art in its conception, admirable in what it sets out to do and in how much it accomplishes. Jonathan Littell has said that he wished to write a work that asked fundamental questions in compelling ways. In this, he has succeeded completely. As I mentioned, I think the debate around this novel is crucial, the kind of debate we need to have once a generation, if not more often. Not just "what is it to be a victim?" and "what is it to suffer?" but also "what is it to inflict suffering?" "what is it to transgress?" In that it encourages real (and sometimes deeply unpleasant) thought, The Kindly Ones is an important work. In that it keeps it eye on the wavering idea of what it is to be human, it's masterful.

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André Alexis's most recent novel is Asylum. It has just been translated into French as L'exil.


En français

As it happens, I had been given Les Bienveillantes for Christmas and had read much of it (a third) by the time I was asked to review its English translation. As might be expected, it's a different novel in French: colder, more precise, coming from another time and place.

French critics have sometimes accused the novel of taking the language a step back in time. True. Les Bienveillantes is like a novel written in the early 20th century, almost old-fashioned in its language. But this is a significant dimension to a novel that deals with European culture. In English, The Kindly Ones is a little more slack, slightly more modern and accessible, but, to me, less effective for that.

A quick illustration. In French, the novel's final sentence is: "Les Bienveillantes avaient retrouvé ma trace." ("The Kindly Ones had again found my tracks.") In English the sentence runs: "The Kindly Ones were onto me." The translation is fine, as far as it goes, but it carries a different weight or accent, so to speak.

André Alexis

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