Unless you are French I suspect you have not read this book. (Most English speaking reviewers will have done their best to dissuade you from doing so)
Not surprising, because it’s a 974 page tome in 9 point type with no real para breaks. 974 pages of wall to wall reading littered with German second world war jargon. It’s written in French and translated into English. It’s enough to put anyone off. And some describe its content as the pornography of violence.
Whilst an award winning bestseller in France it barely sold 17,000 of its initial English language publishing.
I’ve probably had the busiest six months of my working life which is why it has taken my fully six, maybe eight, months to complete the task of reading it.
But it was worth every second.
Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. Apart from the dense structure and German jargon, which one eventually overcomes, Littell has a tendency, in parts, to be rather florid in his descriptions and at times elements of the plotting are fanciful and a bit Bourne Conspiracy and his writing can be untidy. He goes off on one from time to time. He’s obsessed with bodily functions, particularly of a scatological nature, and he writes without an ounce of sympathy.
But put all that to one side and the rest is complete and utter magic.
Magic if the likes of Hungarian movie, Son of Saul, can be described as ‘magic’. Anyone who has seen that compelling movie will be lured into this in the same horrifying way.
This book fully deserves the description; masterpiece.
It concerns the ‘memoirs’ of an ageing French lacemaker as he reflects specifically on his role in the War as an upwardly mobile German SS officer.
The title refers to a trio of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in which “the Kindly Ones” are angels of vengeance who track and torture parent killers. This reflects a sub-plot in which the lacemaker (Dr Max Aue) is doggedly tracked by a pair of vaguely comical policeman after the death of his mother and stepfather in France.
These particular deaths are but two of many (26.6million to be precise) that this book celebrates. I use the word celebrates because, for many reviewers the novel (and although it is historically extremely accurate it is a work of fiction) was felt to almost pornographically dissect the Final Solution and the Battle of Stalingrad and the repugnant end of WWII in Berlin.
As an SS Officer Dr Aue, is intimately involved in the extermination of the Jews but he considers himself removed from the action. Indeed, for much of it, he seems almost to be a sympathiser, desperately seeking ways to extend the lives of concentration camp workers (haftlings) who are being literally starved to death on atrocious rations in inhumane hygiene conditions. His motivation is purely practical though. To get more out of the workforce for the Fuhrer.
The book is broken into seven parts (each named after a Bach dance suite) that capture different aspects of the war and proceed in chronological order, slowly and painfully in minute detail. Perhaps the most compelling is his time on the Front in Stalingrad as the bloody and atrocious battle comes to an end amidst chaos. His reason for stationing there is that he is suspected (rightly so) of being a homosexual. Elements of this are graphically detailed in short interludes. But his real love is his sister and he desperately desires to continue his fumbling childhood sexual liaisons with her. She does not share his wishes and it creates huge emotional turmoil for him.
Some of the descriptions of ‘Aktions’, Concentration Camp conditions, Battlefront scenes and the fall of Berlin are gruelling and heart rending but described without emotion reflecting Dr Aue’s view that he is only carrying out a job. He has no remorse (but some regret) for his actions, but stoutly defends the role of the SS.
For many this could deeply offend and that’s why I recommend it with some conditions.
Indeed this is what Michio Katukani had to say in his review in the New York Times. (It’s a view I can understand but do not concur with.)
Whereas the heroes of the play “Good” and the movie “Mephisto” were ordinary enough men who out of ambition or opportunism or weakness turned to the dark side and embraced the Nazi cause, Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle — like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts.
No doubt the author intends such remarks to convey the horrors of the Holocaust, but “The Kindly Ones” instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies. That such a novel should win two of France’s top literary prizes is not only an example of the occasional perversity of French taste, but also a measure of how drastically literary attitudes toward the Holocaust have changed in the last few decades.
Clearly Katukani takes the view that Littel is unsympathetic to the Jewish situation. I take precisely the opposite view that he is bringing to life, albeit dispassionately, a period in world history that cannot be forgotten.
Jason Burke, in The Guardian, shares my reasons for finding the book so important
Yet it would be wrong to value The Kindly Ones only for its contribution to history. The novel is also a gripping military adventure story and a study in collective pathology. Above all, it is a sophisticated exploration of issues of morality, evil and luck.
The novel as a whole brilliantly shows how “ordinary men” become killers. Through its first 200 pages, we follow an Einsatzgruppen about its grisly work. Though many of its members are vicious antisemites and sadists, most are distinctly normal. As massacre follows massacre, they are progressively brutalised. At first, some balk at shooting unarmed civilians, but soon such reluctance becomes a thing of the past. The men eat sausages and drink beer in pauses during the “Aktion” at Kiev, which saw more than 30,000 Jews killed in two days. Their commanders have difficulties holding back volunteer shooters. By the time Aue arrives at Auschwitz, this process of collective desensitisation has reached a new extreme. Industrialised death on a vast scale, conceived in part to spare troops direct involvement in mass killing, is seen as a rational, indeed inevitable, solution to “the Jewish Problem”.
It is a sombre (not a jot of humour peppers its pages) exploration of what it might have been like to be embroiled in the horror that was WWII in Germany as part of the ‘machine’ that executed the Final Solution and it’s because of this that I was totally immersed in its horrific inevitability and foolishness.
And we are left dwelling on this fundamental consideration of Aue’s personality. Is he a Sociopath or is he, as Littel has him say; just a guy, doing a job?
“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you.”