The translation of Jonathan Littell’s 2006 novel Les Bienveillantes, The Kindly Ones came out in 2009 and sold over a million copies in North America. Encouraging, perhaps, that so many readers are willing to commit to a 950 page novel; but then, I have to wonder how many make it though to the end, as this is a novel that begins with compelling questions and fascinating historical detail, but spends the second half (or thereabouts) in grotesque fantasies of incest, matricide and shit, all culminating in a dissatisfying ending that neither resolves – or returns – to the evocative questions of its introduction, nor offers a plausible plot resoultion.
That said, I recommend The Kindly Ones. The novel begins with Maximillan Aue – the first person protagonist – meditating on his involvement as an SS officer in the war and the Holocaust. He argues that no reader would have done anything differently, and that the extremity of the violence owes more to complicity of all normal, intelligent, rational people than it does to the psychopathic homicidal tendencies of any one. Not a new suggestion, but one worth posing at the beginning of a novel that traces the experiences of Aue and how he can – as a rational, intelligent man – participate.
The first half (or thereabouts) also sees Aue grappling with the morality of his – and the Nazis – crimes. A struggle exemplified in scenes where high commissions and panels of experts debate – using Biblical sources, linguistic analysis, food preparation and gift giving practices – whether a mountain people ought to be considered Jews or not (and thus executed). The absurdity of such a debate calls into question readers’ assumptions that all Nazis acted without consideration – if without cause. Indeed as Aue struggles with questions of responsibility, of justice and of guilt, the reader gains both an appreciation both for the ideological strength of National Socialism, and a kind of sympathy for his position – which the novel maintains, could just as easily have been us.
But following his time in Stalingrad, and a non-fatal shot the head, Aue loses his interest in debating moral questions or considering justifications for his actions, and instead devotes himself entirely to “his work.” All the while plagued by two policemen who accuse him of murdering his mother and stepfather (he did do, but in a blacked out state – a failing of the novel). He purses his work with some fervor until the fall of Berlin, when he escapes to the countryside to spend weeks smearing shit and having sex with corpses. The novel offers some limited justification for his “decent” to this kind of behaviour, alluding throughout the text to Orestes’ matricide and pursuit by the Furies (who later become The Kindly Ones). He makes it back to Berlin in time to meet Hitler (and bite his nose), and to murder his policeman pursuers, as well as his long time compatriot, Thomas. It just doesn’t make any sense. What was the policeman doing in the Berlin zoo? Or Thomas for that matter? And why all the shit and corpses and depravity? I get that it’s meant to mirror the decline of life in Berlin and the collapse of the German war effort, but all the same, it doesn’t allow for any the development of the complex questions of morality, civilization, justice and complicity raised in the first half.
Finally. I did appreciate what must have been extensive research – the novel introduced me to elements of the history I had never encountered before. Perhaps Littell would have done better to write two books, as it seems he had two different ideas for how to approach the Holocaust: moral quandary of the everyman, or pornographic violence of the man without morals at all. But as it is, he just wrote the one, and I’d say, despite it’s difficulties, its well worth the read.