* Prices may differ from that shown
Now here's a book of substance. Not just in its length - nearly 1000 pages - or just the scope of its narrative, or the scale of its ambition, but also in its capacity to provoke thought in the reader. Not all the thoughts it has provoked among critics have been admiring, but reading it is an experience from which it is impossible to emerge indifferent. Love it or hate it, you will find its impact memorable. Personally, I emerged impressed and even slightly shaken, though conscious that as a work of fiction it has weaknesses as well as strengths.
The Kindly Ones impresses, first of all, in achieving the seemingly impossible feat of casting new light from a new perspective on that most over-exposed and hackneyed of all modern topics: Nazi Germany in the Second World War. It is impressive too, though less original, in the research that has been devoted to recreating that environment with accurate plausibility, and weaving real events and historical personages into the story. And it is impressive, if not always convincing, in trying to extract new lessons and new philosophical insights from the experience.
* To Stalingrad and back *
The Kindly Ones recounts, autobiographically, the life of its fictional protagonist Dr Max Aue between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the fall of Berlin in the spring of 1945. Aue is an officer in the SD (the security arm of the SS), a dedicated Nazi though one of an unusually intellectual disposition. His family background is a troubled one: his German father saw distinguished service in the First World War but disappeared shortly afterwards leaving him and his twin sister in the care of their mother, who is Alsatian (i.e. borderline French). She remarries a Frenchman and moves the family to France. Incestuous childhood games with his sister lead him to be sent away to a Catholic boarding school, where he is bullied and sexually abused. He emerges with emotional baggage aplenty: resenting his mother, hating his stepfather, obsessed with his sister and a closet homosexual. His energies are channelled into helping build the new Germany, and he responds enthusiastically to being assigned an active role in 'cleansing' the conquered territories of proscribed racial and political 'enemies'. At first shocked and nauseated by what this involves in practice, he hardens his heart and carries on, participating in extermination operations in Ukraine and the Caucasus.
A turning-point comes when he is assigned to Stalingrad and suffers a near-fatal head wound. Luck and the intervention of his friend Thomas, another SS officer and an astute political opportunist, come to his rescue. He is evacuated, decorated and on recovery promoted to Himmler's staff, where he is more closely than ever involved in the grisly business of the final solution. Meanwhile, during his convalescence he has visited France, where his mother and stepfather are subsequently discovered to have been brutally murdered. The police suspect him of the crime, but are kept at bay by his influential SS connections. While he continues to rise in the hierarchy, his world contrapuntally begins to collapse around him: the tide of war turns and the Nazi machine falters under the blows of Russian advances in the east and allied bombing from the west. His ability to perform his job and his emotional state both become ever more erratic until, amid the chaotic collapse of the Reich in early 1945, we find him first acting out erotic fantasies at his sister's house in Pomerania, then once more rescued by Thomas to escape through the vengeful Red Army lines, and finally losing his self-control while being awarded yet another medal by Hitler in person.
Yet through all this we know - because he has told us so at the outset - that he will survive to live the life of a respectable French businessman and family man for decades afterwards.
* Telling the story *
Nearly 1000 pages of first person narration is a lot, even for a story of such wide-ranging action, and it does occasionally seem a bit interminable. In places, Littell allows himself to become bogged down in detail. However meticulously researched the background may be, the reader doesn't really need to know all about internal disputes in the Nazi ranks as to whether or not certain ethnic groups in the Caucasus could be classified as Jews, or about the relative emphasis to be placed on extracting work from concentration camp inmates or on liquidating them. Historically these may be interesting, and also illustrative of the totalitarian mindset, but they slow down the story. Nor is the ease of reading facilitated by the cumbersome arrangement of the text: lengthy chapters, constructed from paragraphs that are prolonged for pages, incorporating dialogue within them rather than separating it out so that the reader can more readily identify which character is speaking at any given time. However, for me these were irritants rather than deterrents. The meaning was easy enough to extract, the main thread of the story was engaging and its pace never slowed to the point of flagging, whilst in places - Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin - it positively zips along, with some sharply observed action writing.
Above all, the story-telling works because is essentially plausible. One can easily imagine Aue and the other leading characters acting as portrayed, given their nature and the circumstances. Only once or twice does Littell lay it on a little too thick, for example in inventing a sinister financier, Dr Mandelbrod, grotesquely obese but loyally served by a retinue of fanatical flaxen-haired frauleins. Whilst Nazi Germany was not short of grotesque and sinister characters, Mandelbrod seems to have been imported from more imaginary territory, and would be less out of place as the villain in a Bond film. But he is an exception, and as a rule the characterisation convinces, including that of historical personages like Himmler, Speer or Eichmann, sustaining the credibility of a narrative that might otherwise test our credence.
Where style is concerned, I should make clear that I am commenting here on the English translation by Charlotte Mandel. The original was written in... no, not German but French. Although Littell is an American, he was largely educated in France and prefers to write in the language of that country. It does seem a little mysterious, though, that he has delegated the task of translating his novel into his own native tongue. So far as I can tell, not having read the French version, Mandel has done a good job. Though dense in places, the written style cleverly avoids becoming ponderous. Rather it is fluent, and often graphic. Just occasionally, it becomes too graphic for the reader's comfort, or its own. As well as prestigious literary prizes - the Prix Goncourt and the Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française - it has also received a 'Bad Sex Award' for some of the fantasy-incest sequences.
* The medium and the message *
For the most part, The Kindly Ones tells a story rather than pleads a case. The exception is at the outset, consisting of a preliminary chapter of self-justification on the part of its narrator. There are two main strands to his argument: the first being that the holocaust represents an insignificant proportion of the sum total of death and suffering inflicted on man by man, much of which has gone unpunished and even uncensured, and its perpetrators should not therefore be subjected to disproportionate condemnation; the second that he did only what anyone might have done in the circumstances. "I am a man like other men," he concludes. "I tell you I am just like you!"
It is unclear to what extent the reader is expected to take this apologia seriously, and to what extent simply as offering an ironic insight into the character of the protagonist and those like him. My own guess would be that the first part is intended as essentially as character-illustration (it is, after all, too easy to counter along the lines of "the existence of many crimes doesn't make the perpetrators of any one crime less culpable" for as intelligent a writer as Littell to have meant it to be taken at face value), but the second is intended to ring a bell in all our consciences and set us a challenge of self-scrutiny. Would we, in the same circumstances, have behaved very differently?
Unfortunately - unfortunate from the artistic viewpoint, that is, rather than the personal one - Littell gives the reader too easy an escape from this challenge too. Aue is just a little too much of an oddball for many people to readily identify with him. His traumatic upbringing may help explain why he has become what is, but most of us do not share that background and can therefore dissociate ourselves from its outcome. When Aue claims to be "just like you" you feel justified in doubting it, or at least I did. I especially felt justified in doubting whether I would ever have become a committed Nazi, let alone an SS Officer, in the first place. No doubt life in a totalitarian society induces people to compromise their personal principles, profess beliefs they do not have and turn a blind eye to all kinds of official excess. But that is different from being an enthusiastic participant in the excesses. Let me be clear: I found this an unsettling, even disturbing, book to read, because of the insight it offers into how man's inhumanity to man originates and is enacted, but not nearly as unsettling as it would have been if I had been persuaded by the protagonist's claim to be just like me. I suspect most readers will feel similarly.
For that reason, The Kindly Ones seems to me to fall just a little short of fulfilling its highest ambition, and just a little short of being a great novel, considerable literary achievement though it is. Its other shortcoming, in my opinion, is a tendency to excessive intellectualisation. The title, for example, is a reference to the Furies of Greek mythology, called 'Kindly Ones' by Aeschylus as a gesture of propitiatory irony. The two policemen who pursue Aue for the murder of his mother are presumably to be regarded as fulfilling this role, and their inclusion a sign of Littell's view that the whole Nazi episode is best interpreted in the light of the classical Greek concept of tragedy rather than that of the post-Enlightenment west. Another embellishment is the chapter titles, each referring (apparently) to Baroque musical styles; the underlying import of this, I have to admit, escaped me. Such stuff may well have helped The Kindly Ones to achieve acclaim in France, where they like a layer or two of highbrow icing on their gateau, but as a perhaps Philistine Englishman I would have preferred it uniced. There is quite enough for readers to get their teeth into without it.
* Shoah to please? *
Unsurprisingly, for a book on such a subject featuring such a protagonist, The Kindly Ones has met with its fair share of controversy. Some critics have dismissed it as "Holocaust porn", while others have interpreted it as an attempted justification for Nazi atrocities and have been outraged accordingly. Personally, I think the latter interpretation is wide of the mark; Aue is too unsympathetic a character and his self-serving arguments too unconvincing for that, and I'm sure Littell could have made a more considered case if such was his intention. Rather, the book is an attempt to understand what might prompt an intelligent, sensitive man to play a role in such monstrous crimes. After all, there must be such people active in all totalitarian regimes, as well as the usual suspects - the sadistic bullies and the desensitised bureaucrats - or the regimes would not function as efficiently as they do. Perhaps that is an uncomfortable truth of which those critics don't wish to be reminded. Nevertheless, my criticism would be the opposite of theirs: that Aue is not made human and sympathetic enough to really jolt us out of our complacency and make us think 'there but for the luck of the draw go I'.
* Standard stuff *
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, translated into English by Charlotte Mandel, is published in paperback in the UK by Chatto and Windus, an imprint of Random House, 992 pages at a cover price £12.99. You can of course find it more cheaply on the internet.
* Recommendation *
After all that I hardly need say that The Kindly Ones does not make for light and carefree reading, and if that's what you're looking for it won't be you. If, on the other hand, you like a novel of depth and subtlety that makes you think as you read and keeps you pondering for some time after you've finished, it might well be. And if you're interested in the history of Nazi Germany but thought there was nothing new to be said on the subject, it's worth reading to discover that you were mistaken.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2012
Product rating: The Kindly Ones is a significant book and as such can hardly be awarded fewer than five stars, despite its shortcomings.