By Max Dunbar.
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell, Vintage 2010
‘I was forced to spend half a day staring into space in order to recover from the book’s sheer awfulness,’ wrote Ed Champion, shortly after finishing Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. As well as the review itself (which no longer appears to be online) and the blog post, Champion was moved to post a video on YouTube, in which the critic lies on his back and shrieks, in laughter and pain: ‘So bad! Three days!’ Champion adds that: ‘even if I didn’t possess some modest spirit of decency, I could not possibly recommend this book to my worst enemy. The Kindly Ones still rests in the stacks of spent tomes, sullying the fine offerings of other skilled voices. I have strongly considered burning it.’
Having just finished it myself, I understand Champion’s reaction. Only burning could suffice. You would be afraid to keep The Kindly Ones in your house, even in a locked cabinet. You’d be afraid even if you threw it out; even if you tied it in a weighted sack and flung it into the canal, you would be afraid it would somehow come back to find you.
‘O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened,’ says Dr Max Aue. He’s a French businessman and Nazi war criminal who has never been brought to account for his actions. The preface is a brief window of breath before Aue’s bludgeoning, thousand-page WW2 memoir. Aue recounts his part in the seminal moments of the Third Reich: the killings on the Eastern Front, Stalingrad, the death camps. Paragraphs go on for pages, with no break for dialogue: apparently, Littell dictated that: ‘The text must consist of great blocks, blocks that are suffocating to the reader, who must not be able to get through them too easily.’ In this, Littell and his translator Charlotte Mandell have succeeded. It took me a month to finish this book, on and off. Random should print t-shirts: I SURVIVED THE KINDLY ONES. And yet it wasn’t entirely a grind. There’s something there that hooks you.
The Kindly Ones has repelled because of tone as well as content. Littell seems to have written this book in French purely to get that sense of stunned, casual melancholia (you see it everywhere in Houellebecq) when French is translated into English. (According to Jason Burke, the American author chose to write in French because ‘it best renders Aue’s mix of viciousness, chilly irony and confidentiality.’) Appalling horrors and crimes are rendered in distant well-what-can-you-do colloqualisms. The pornography of violence is interspersed with the pornography of bureaucracy. Much of Aue’s recollections consist of internal SS politics and obscure racial discussions. The easy segue from the atrocious to the ridiculous illustrates, of course, the fact that for Aue it is all on the same level. His mild, concussed voice is perhaps a projection of every self under these conditions. But then Aue is no ordinary man.
In the preface, Dr Aue presents himself as a victim of moral luck. He has lost his ‘right not to kill,’ and this goes for most of the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide: ‘In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit.’ He has a point. We who live in democratic countries will often run into unpleasant people (often those milking some minor authority) and will, spoken or not, compare them to Nazis or Khmer Rouge commandants. It’s not moral equivalence – or at least not entirely. It’s the recognition that if society was ordered differently then the departmental administrator or the sous chef may be loading bodies into the mass grave – and that we would be working alongside him. As Aue says, we are not better, just luckier, and it is only an accident of time and space that we have no blood on our hands.
Yet as many reviewers have pointed out, Aue is nowhere near normal. (Littell even seems to anticipate the reaction by having him say: ‘I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know.’) A closeted bisexual haunted by an incestuous love for his sister Una, Aue despairs of the coarse brutality exhibited by most of his SS colleagues, and has a love of classical music, literature and philosophy. He sees himself as an aesthete who has taken the wrong career path, and blames his predicament squarely on his family: there’s even a possibility that he may have made use of his leave by killing his mother and stepfather.
When the Aue twins meet in Berlin during the war, Una tells him that she has become a woman whereas Aue himself is still a little boy. Believing nevertheless that he and his sister are destined to be together as lovers, Aue rejects all other possibities of companionship with either sex; women who approach him are politely turned down, and one unfortunate male fling is brutally murdered at an SS party during the fall of Berlin. Aue cannot get beyond the personal. At the end of the war, he is far from the falling cities, lost in a drunken delerium at his sister’s house. Bizarre dreamscapes permeate the most dramatic historical moments. Throughout, Aue presents himself as a victim of circumstance, beholden to unspoken promises or duties; in this way, he denies his capacity for change, either in his own life or the wider world. If the Furies are coming for him, he will have deserved their wrath.
For if it is true that ‘everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do’, then it is also true that some people don’t, and stand tall, and that if these heroes are few and forgotten, that doesn’t stop the capacity for heroism from living inside every one of us. In response to Burke, Norman Geras wrote that: ‘There’s no reason anyone should be talked into thinking they are worse than they may actually prove to be. There are plenty of reasons for encouraging them to try to be better than they might otherwise think they are.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry, and reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 3rd, 2010.