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The Kindly Ones, By Jonathan Littell, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Friday 27 February 2009
This strange and often unwieldy novel arrives in English preceded by its massive reputation as a literary phenomenon and a bestseller across Europe. This reputation is all the more striking given the fact that it was written in French by a thirtysomething American resident in Barcelona, and it presents over 800 pages an unremittingly grim account of the course of the Second World War. This is history as a journey, trudging from the horrors of the eastern Front to the unspeakable massacres of the Final solution. It ends in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a wrecked Berlin, where the Russian hordes stand poised to lay waste to the mad Utopian fantasy of Hitler's dream of a German Empire. Most notably, and controversially, the novel purports to be the memoirs of an ageing but unrepentant Nazi. This is history told by the executioners and not the victims.
In France The Kindly Ones (or Les Bienveillantes) was immediately hailed as a classic tale of war and suffering, a Tolstoy for the 20th century. It was even awarded the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize in the French-speaking world. Critics admired the scholarly rigor of Littell's research, which is indeed impressive in its detail, from the insignia on Nazi German uniforms to the pre-war shape of city streets. The French critics also approved of his literary mentors, including De Sade, Maurice Blanchot, Robert Antelme and Georges Bataille. All of these are expert theoreticians of cruelty but also, to some extent or other, philosophers of the metaphysics of Evil. Littell is nothing if not ambitious and has no problems setting his narrator, Max Aue, alongside these figures.
Aue is meant to be an expert on "efficiency" in the death camps, and he tackles the logistics of mass murder with the same perverted but purist logic he applies to the rest of his life. Accordingly, he explains his homosexuality with the simple formula that he hated and was hated by his mother. He might not even be properly homosexual anyway: he is tormented by incestuous lust for his sister. During the Fall of Berlin, he buggers himself with a stick. I am not sure what the allegorical meaning of this image is but it is clearly meant to have one. In the same vein, Max Aue and other characters frequently invoke Plato, Sophocles and Goethe to explain their acts. The overall ambition of the book is clearly to function as an epic in the classical mode: the very title is a reference to the Furies of Greek myth, whom Aeschylus calls the "kindly ones" to appease their vengeful fury.
Beyond France, The Kindly Ones has been less ecstatically received. This is the case most notably in Germany where historians and critics have accused Littell of falsifying historical details and, with his exquisite descriptions of extreme violence, of writing "Holocaust porn". Certainly, part of the appeal of this book is that it tells a compelling and savage tale, with a cold dispassionate eye that never flinches from the raw reality of mass-murder. Littell has spent time in the Balkans and Chechnya. As a writer he is unafraid to be fascinated by the pity and horror of war. This serves him well as a chronicler of the German Second World War.
But this is also a deeply flawed work. This is mainly because although the author is good, and even occasionally brilliant, on describing on inhumane atrocities, he is altogether less convincing when it comes to giving a convincing account of humanity and the intricate and ambiguous details of human behaviour. Max Aue is a failed human being, a monster in fact, and it is unsurprising that he performs monstrous acts. Thus the book fails in its central argument, clearly stated at the beginning, to demonstrate that we are all brothers and that the Nazi catastrophe was not an aberration made by the enemies of humanity but, even in its most terrible moments, a deeply human tragedy. No one who suffered in the death camps would believe this for a moment.
The real model for this book is not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky - both deeply moral connoisseurs of human wickedness - but the more fluid moral universe of Flaubert. More specifically, like Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale, The Kindly Ones aims to chronicle the shifting emotional and political ambiguities of a generation without ever properly passing final judgment. Appropriately, Max Aue is not only most at home with French culture and French references. This applies too to Littell himself - indeed the entire architecture of the book is constructed as a "roman-fleuve", a comfortingly old-fashioned form of writing which belongs to the 19th century and which no doubt explains the book's success in France.
Having read this book in French two years ago, I started reading it in English during a short stay in Berlin. This is a city which is changing so quickly that history can barely keep up. On a short walk across Potsdamer Platz, the former "death strip" of the Berlin Wall era, you can munch on a kangaroo burger at a self-styled Australian restaurant, take in Kate Winslet in The Reader at the huge Sony multiplex, visit the Jewish memorial site or check out where Iggy Pop was shooting smack with Bowie in the mid-Seventies.
Everything here is loaded with memory and history. But Berliners are starting to complain about "memory fatigue"; they complain that, as yet another series of Gestapo torture chambers is turned into a "museum", the city becomes a Nazi theme park. Worse still, they are bored at always having to apologise for the crimes of their great-grandfathers. Most controversially, you don't have to be neo-Nazi to find the Disney-ification of German history tedious and artificial. The Kindly Ones is not quite in this category - whatever its shortcomings, it is a serious attempt to explain the terrors of the Nazi regime. But few reviewers have pointed out that it is also an entertaining read. This of course brings its own dangers: it may not be "Holocaust porn" but it is "Holocaust kitsch" - a genre which, like the tourist museums scattered across contemporary Berlin, risks wiping out real memories, real history.
Andrew Hussey is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) and the author of 'Paris – The Secret History'
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