[16 July 2009]
Sometimes, there is in what is horrible and true a great and terrible beauty. There is nothing whatsoever beautiful about Jonathan Littel’s novel of Nazi German atrocities, The Kindly Ones, though there is much that is both great and terrible, in the best and worst sense of those words.
At just shy of 1,000 pages, The Kindly Ones is not for the faint of heart or short of patience. Its densely-packed pages (even long sections of dialogue are printed in run-on, in pages-long paragraphs, providing no relief to the eye) contain long passages about linguistics and etymology, political philosophy, and bureaucratic machinations, and there are countless acronyms (mostly left undefined by the brief glossary at the back of the book) referring to Nazi military and bureaucratic entities that finally tend to just glide by the eye. But with all its longeurs and heft, this tombstone of a book is one of the best novels of recent years and its acclaim in Europe, where it won two important French prizes, is more than justified.
The Kindly Ones is the fictional memoir of Doctor Maximilien Aue, a German Nazi and SS officer of impeccable Aryan stock, raised in France, and abandoned at an early age by his father. At the age of 13, he engages in incest with his twin sister, a relationship that, though squelched early by discovery and separation, will leave Aue psychologically impaired and in a state of sexual infantilization (sex with young men reminds him of his sister).
But this is all background; the real purpose of the novel is to detail Aue’s experiences as a member of the SS, which was responsible for annihilating partisans and Jews in order to protect the rear of the Germany army, the Wermacht, as well as for the “Final Solution”.
In the first half of the book, Aue describes his experiences in Ukraine, where he participated in the massacre of 39,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine, and then in Stalingrad, just before the defeat of the German Army there, where Aue is almost killed himself.
The second half of the book describes Aue’s recovery (he is decorated by Himmler himself) and eventual assignment to Himmler’s staff, and his activities there charged with making recommendations for increasing the number of able-bodied prisoners, both Jewish and otherwise, passing through the concentration camp “selection” process, to ensure that a larger proportion of them remain healthy and are redirected to work camps and factories to help support the industrial war effort.
This military career path, cleverly chosen by the author, allows the reader to follow Aue through much of the horrors of the Holocaust, to encounter its authors, including Himmler, Eichmann, Hoss (the commander of Auschwitz), and many others, even to a brief audience with Hitler himself in his bunker.
Littel is also careful to pick a job for Aue that makes him a willing participant, but not often a hands-on perpetrator of the worst offences of the Holocaust. This slight distancing allows us to accept Aue as neither self-deluded nor unreliable as a narrator.
Aue is a composite figure, a stand-in for the segment of the German people who not only condoned but also assisted in the “Final Solution”. He is both a monster and a kind of anti-hero, perverted in his obsessive love of his sister, but ambiguous in his bi-sexuality. He may have killed his mother, whom he hates for having driven his father away, but he has no recollection of the crime and feels no guilt for it. And he is a world-class rationalizer, who can live with his role as a soldier and executioner in the name of the Volk, the ideal of the perfect people, the perfect nation and, though he never uses the phrase, the “master race”. His many personal defects are the small mirror of his nation’s greater guilt.
The Kindly Ones has all the art, seriousness, and structure of a great, great novel. The New York Times‘ hard-to-please Michiko Kakutani, in a bitter (even for her) condemnation of the book, calls it “a voyeuristic spectacle — like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts” and “a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”
There’s plenty of death in this new addition to Holocaust literature, but I would not call it “blood and guts” or “voyeuristic”, or in any way “pointless”. How does one describe 39,000 Jews killed at Babi Yar from the point of view of one of those in charge, one of the murderers? One can neither honor the dead nor attempt to understand the motivations and the emotions of the murderers without the kind of clear-eyed, simple, and relatively restrained (however voluminous) prose that Littel has assembled here. The only alternative is not to write about it at all.
The book’s only significant mistake, and Kakutani refers to it, is a chapter near the end of the book describing Aue’s stay at his sister’s abandoned house while on medical leave for a concussion received during an air raid. These 45 pages are devoted largely to a series of sexual fantasies intended to convey how the eroticization of sex and the eroticization of death are intertwined. The point, if it needed to be made, could have been made in far fewer pages.
But, it’s important to note, the descriptions of atrocity are only a small portion of the book. Aue’s later visits to Aushwitz are reported with restraint, the author having made his point about the surreal horror of mass murder in the earlier chapters. Instead, he focuses on the mentality of those who run the camp. A doctor at Aushwitz offers this perception of the brutality of the guards:
The novel is full of such moments. No matter how close the book takes us to the pornography of war, and the particularly obscene way in which the Nazi’s waged it, the author brings us up short with passages that do not attempt to excuse anything, only to explain it.
And that, in the end, is the achievement of The Kindly Ones. It makes a heroic attempt to understand and explain the incomprehensible. It does not claim or even imply that it accomplishes this goal. In fact, many of the explanations – from extensive discourse on National Socialism to detailed description of bureaucratic dysfunction to vivid character portraiture (particularly of Eichmann) – are contradictory and only make the picture less clear and more complex. Which, it seems, is one of Littel’s points. There is no simple or coherent explanation for the Holocaust. How could there be?