Book Review: ‘The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell

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By Melvin Jules Bukiet
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 7, 2009


By Jonathan Littell

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

Harper. 984 pp. $29.99

Hire some nice young people. Tell them to copulate. Take a picture and you're a pornographer. But add a caption and you're a documentarian. Better yet, frame the picture and voilà! you're an artist. Best of all, turn that picture into half a million words, slap on a cover and you're a writer. Jonathan Littell's expansive and repulsive first novel -- an award-winning bestseller in France, where it was originally published -- is part literature, predominantly documentary and most memorably pornography.

"The Kindly Ones" begins in the present, when Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi bureaucrat who has adopted a modest new identity as the manager of a lace factory in France, decides to write his memoirs. In the opening pages, Aue sets the terms for the book. He is unapologetic about his role in the Holocaust, but neither is he rabidly anti-Semitic. Instead, he insists, perhaps correctly, that his atrocities were a function of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, the 6 million Jews murdered by the likes of Aue during the 1940s were in a worse place, yet who can say whether, if circumstances were reversed, many of them wouldn't have bowed to authority as he did?

On the other hand, the Jews didn't have that choice, and there's a difference between an active, if reluctant, participant in genocide and a victim who might have been a perpetrator in an alternative universe. Littell sees through the specious arguments of the good doctor (of jurisprudence, not medicine) Aue and then allows the man to hang himself, figuratively.

Aue enters the intelligence branch of the SS because it offers career opportunities. This allows him to travel and drink fine wine while observing and organizing mass murder, if never quite pulling the trigger himself. Initially, Aue is assigned to one of the mobile killing units that executed hundreds of thousands of Jews in shtetls throughout the Ukraine. Sure, he feels compunctions; it's a messy business. He disdains some of his sadistic co-workers and absurdly claims, in "all honesty . . . I had doubts about our methods." Still, he completes his tasks, rising consistently in the ranks.

The pressure does, however, wreak havoc with Aue's digestive system. He vomits before he has half-digested his food, and he seems to have diarrhea for the entire second half of the war. But it's likely that some of his problems precede his stressful labors because we also hear a tale of obsession dating from childhood with his twin sister. This unresolved personal history leads, near the end of the book, to an explicit sexual fantasy before a feverish, Boschian climax in which Aue finally kills several people he actually knows.

Until that finale, his work puts him in contact with nearly every major figure in the Nazi party hierarchy. He reports to Heydrich and Himmler. He negotiates with Speer for slave labor and attends musical evenings at the Eichmann household. Ultimately, he meets Hitler.

"The Kindly Ones" eagerly displays vast amounts of research. We are treated to several pages on the languages of the Caucasus as well as a remarkable description of Jawizowitz, a subcamp of Auschwitz about which virtually no one who didn't survive its lethal mines would know. All of this documentation may be impressive, but the research begins to feel like an excuse for a giddy "If this is Tuesday, it must be Madjanek" itinerary as Aue hopscotches from the mass execution of Kiev's Jews in the pit at Babi Yar to the destruction of the German army at Stalingrad to several major extermination camps to the underground V-2 missile factory at Mittlebau-Dora. I couldn't help but wonder, "Will he make it to the Führer's bunker?" and, sure enough, he does. Aue is a Zelig of the Holocaust.

Throughout Aue's morbidly picaresque travels, the tone is leering. A phenomenon that can only be called death porn saturates "The Kindly Ones." Despite its many, potent set pieces that vividly render the misery and insanity of war, the effect is voyeuristic as Aue, Littell and the unfortunate reader rubberneck at the innumerable bodies -- gassed, shot, hanged, strangled, burnt, bombed, eyes gouged, intestines unwound, limbs severed, brains spattered -- heaped in piles by history's roadside.

Two years ago when it won France's Goncourt and Grand Prix de Littérature, "The Kindly Ones" was compared to Tolstoy's "War and Peace," presumably because of its length and scope. But it more aptly sits beside -- rather, beneath -- Christopher Browning's nonfictional examination of the Einsatzgruppen, "Ordinary Men," and William T. Vollmann's novel "Europe Central." Without a hint of the prurience of "The Kindly Ones," "Ordinary Men" makes many of the same points through hard evidence and sober restraint. In fact, Browning notes that few of the killers were as tormented as Aue claims to be. This makes one wonder whether Littell's intent is to create a mundane functionary or a monster, or both. Yet after nearly 1,000 pages, we can't quite tell because Littell fails to explore any of the moral dilemmas that compose Vollmann's multifaceted vision of real people at pivotal moments in Germany and Russia during the 1940s.

Not that a reader necessarily seeks a lesson, but fiction and nonfiction ought to approach the subject as more than an opportunity to wallow in the worst humankind has to offer. In "The Kindly Ones," event follows event without any sense of individual character or dramatic motion except for that of the war itself. The book is narratively empty and intellectually incoherent. It leaves us feeling like tourists, gawking.

Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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