The Kindly Ones – Jonathan Littell: Part 1 (Pages 1-40)

But first, a word from our sponsors…

I’ve gotten bored of writing structured, essay-style book reviews, and thought I’d give something different a try.  My aim in writing reviews is to provide readers with an idea of if they’d enjoy it, but also to help me reflect on the book.  To focus more on the latter, instead of waiting until I finish a book to write a post on it, I’ll try blogging as I go.  Hopefully, this will get me writing more and help me capture what it’s actually like to read the book.  I’ll also be trying to write in a style that is more personal than critical, more fan-boy than academic.  Let me know what you  think.

And now, our feature presentation…

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

My sister gave me The Kindly Ones for Christmas in 2010, and despite her strong recommendation, it has sat on the bookshelf unread ever since.  I was put off in part by its near thousand-page size, and in part by the critical acclaim plastered all it: “A great work of literary fiction, to which readers will turn for decades to come”; “A tour de force”;  “A monument of contemporary literature.”  There’s even a little red, round sticker on the front cover saying “Profoundly important” (this makes me wonder if it was stuck there on the production line, or if it was shipped out to bookstores later and bookstore clerks had to go around sticking little red, round stickers on every copy).  I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but since out-of-context praise sprouts on every book cover, I don’t put much value on it.  The more hyperbolic these quotes are, the more suspicious I am of them.

What really made me wary of The Kindly Ones, though, was that it’s about two subjects I’ve lost interest in reading about: World War II and the Holocaust.  This isn’t to say that I don’t recognise the scale and importance of these historic tragedies.  It’s just that they have been tackled so often and so well in literature and movies that I believed there was nothing new to say about them.

Thankfully, I was proven wrong within the first few pages of The Kindly Ones.  I was immediately hooked by the distinct voice and confronting manner of the narrator, Doctor Max Aue.

Aue is an unapologetic former high-ranking Nazi who implicates himself in yet-to-be-revealed atrocities, the Holocaust among them.  Eloquent and educated, he frequently references philosophy and literature and draws from extensive historical knowledge.  He believes in nothing except, apparently, the truth.  He is defiant about his lack of guilt to the point of defensiveness, and suffers from constipation and chronic vomiting that further suggests he is, despite what he claims, tortured by his past.  He insists that he is only writing to kill time, then proceeds to defend his war-time actions, as if they are some open wound he can’t help itching.

Directly addressing the reader, the questions he poses about culpability immediately made me think differently about the Holocaust.  Did the Nazi soldiers have any choice in carrying out the atrocities they committed?  Would most people have acted differently in their situation?  As he puts it in one of many quotable quotes:

“genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses… Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labour, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions.”

Considering how confronting this issue is for some people, no doubt Littell has been accused of being a Nazi apologiest.  It always makes me cringe whenever someone is pillorised for crafting a realistic portrait of, say, Hitler, because what else was he but a man, and what do we have to gain by denying that?  If anything, seeing him as anything other than a human would prevent us from learning from the past, and guarding against such horrors in the future.

Regardless, so far, Littell is striking a balance between giving history’s greatest villains depth and motivation without detracting from the barbarity of their actions.

After the prologue, Aue reverts to a more traditional narrative about his experiences in the Eastern front, and begins to support his previous assertions.  There is a chilling mix of bureaucracy and atrocity.  A commander ordered to kill one thousand Jews as reprisal for the mutilation of ten German soldiers gets drunk, goes insane and has to be removed from the field.  His subordinates try to avoid being lumped with command so that they don’t have to carry out the task.

My only complaint so far is that a lot of characters have been introduced in a short space of time, but maybe this is supposed to illustrate the facelessness of the hierarchy.  Let’s see if The Kindly Ones can sustain this quality for another nine-hundred and sixty some pages.


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