The Kindly Ones
By Jonathan Littell (Chatto & Windus 992pp Ł20)
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This book has divided the world. The French love it, and gave it not only the Prix Goncourt but the Académie Française's Prix de la Littérature as well. The British are split - Antony Beevor loved it, Peter Kemp hated it. The survivor-writer Jorge Semprún admired it; Claude Lanzmann, the maker of Shoah, first hated it, then changed his mind. Most Americans and Canadians loathe it.
Why? And who is right and wrong?
That should be a naďve question, since wildly differing responses to the same book are perfectly normal. But here there is, I think, a right and a wrong answer, though not simple ones. Those who admire The Kindly Ones are right, but those who loathe it are not completely wrong. It is half a work of genius and half a work of gratuitous perversion.
The first thing to note is that it is not in any ordinary sense a novel, despite its publisher's designation. It is 992 pages and dense with argument; hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of characters march across its pages. As many readers will know by now, it comprises the memories of an ex-SS officer whose career took him to all the worst places of the war: Babi Yar, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Berlin in the last days, including Hitler's bunker. What is extraordinary about it is the minute and mountainous detail of these events, the making of them as ordinary to us as it was to those who lived through them, by the sheer weight of facts and thoughts, and the time it takes to read them.
A novel follows a handful of characters through a handful of events - few enough so that we can remember them and care. In The Kindly Ones we meet all the people - soldiers, victims, politicians, bureaucrats - whom Maximilian Aue comes across in the course of five years of war; you'd need to be Funes el Memorioso to remember them all. If The Kindly Ones were a novel, therefore, it would be a bad one. But it is not a novel. It is a work of history - animated by Aue's hate and fear (he has no love, or only one, as he often tells us), but a work of history nonetheless. That is one of the reasons why Antony Beevor admires it; and why I do too. If you want to know what mass murdering was like, from the point of view of the perpetrators - the anguish and the ordinariness, the in-fighting and career-building, the reasons with which they deluded themselves, as men do in every war, just and monstrously unjust alike (the trick is to tell the difference) - read The Kindly Ones. If you want to know what Stalingrad was like for them - how Germans starved and froze there as their victims did in Auschwitz, how they had to wrap their penises in cloth to pee, while others held their frost-bitten hands in the warm stream - read The Kindly Ones. If you want to read some of the best-expressed, most terrible arguments about why people become sadists, or for 'there but for the grace of God go we' - read The Kindly Ones.
So the French are right. Nor is The Kindly Ones only a great work of history and reflection, but full of striking literary writing: consummate adagios of landscape painting; lovely images and observations (often of birds, like the last goose in a line slipping under a gate, a green apple wedged in her beak); even touches of macabre humour, like the decision of starving soldiers, faced with the choice between an enemy and a comrade, to eat one of their Ukrainian volunteers: 'an entirely reasonable compromise'.
But then there is the other side: the private story of Maximilian Aue, cold, erudite and dangerously idealistic, an obsessive sodomite and coprophiliac, a multiple murderer and betrayer - not only in war - and the incestuous lover of his twin sister since early childhood. This side - which is a novel - is the problem. It is yet more shocking and unbearable than the other, and told in even more graphic detail, thus reducing the historical horrors almost to a sideshow. Worse, it contradicts the point of the story, which is to show us that, as Aue says, 'There is no such thing as inhumanity ... only more and more humanity': that in the same hellish circumstances we would have done the same hellish things; that he is, as he cries, 'just like you' (only, as the Jewish slaves in the crematoria added, 'much more unhappy'). But we are not like him. We may be like Döll, a decent husband and father who finds himself on the euthanasia staff in Germany, and then in Sobibor. Though we may also not be, and some in The Kindly Ones itself aren't, including Aue's own twin sister. That is probably Littell's point - that in all of us there is a good and bad twin. But in this frightful tale only the evil twin speaks to us, telling us that we are like him, and that therefore life is not worth living. It is not true; and the main aim of his vast and painstaking project is undermined.
The negative side continues too. I foresaw all the twists of Aue's story - not only the ones we were meant to see before him, but others too, eg the ending. Littell introduces strange magical elements, and strange comic ones as well, such as the two policemen who pursue Aue like (he says) Laurel and Hardy, instead of the Furies of the title, or the very premise of the book: that Aue is everywhere, and meets everyone (Eichmann, Himmler, Hitler himself), like Woody Allen's Zelig. The scholarship of Aue and his friends is as excessive as everything else (there are seven pages on Caucasian languages), and occasionally as improbable. And last but not least the book is too bloody long. Who will read it? And what is the point of a book - even a half-masterpiece - that no one will read?
And yet the French are still right. Even - or especially - on the private story side, Littell leaves profound mysteries. What is real and what imagined in Aue's memories? And what happened in their dark empty spaces? Even he cannot face the very worst - the first mass murders he witnesses, the murder of his mother, perhaps even of his sister herself. Perhaps this final fact - that even the most evil among us, or in us, cannot consciously do the very worst - is the most hopeful and the most artistic thing about this deeply hopeless, only occasionally artistic, but inescapably impressive book.