The Kindly Ones : a novel by Jonathan Littell, translated by Charlotte Mandell
New York: Harper, 2009 ISBN 9780061724473
Where does one start with this book.....there is little doubt that this has the makings of an all-time classic, while at the same time being one of the most emotionally and physically draining books one can read. As a feat of imagination it is almost impossible to comprehend how the author managed to create such a work.
Written as an ostensible memoir of the former SS officer Maximillien Aue, Littell sets the scene in the opening section of the book (the books sections are named Toccata, Allemandes I and II, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet (en Rondeaux), Air, Gigue - there is much reference to music, particularly French Baroque composers, throughout the book), in which Aue describes his current situation in Belgium as a respected manager of a lace making concern, with wife and children. He has a false identity, and his determination to write his memoirs comes not from regret at what he did, as he still seems a committed National Socialist, but as almost a cautionary tale, daring the reader to question what they would do if placed in a similar situation - "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." Aue however, as we will see, is not like you or me, despite assuring us he is. We know by the end of this first short section that Aue doesn't love his wife or children, engages in casual homosexual sex, and has an unnatural attachment to his twin sister.
Aue provides in this first section of the book one of the most gruesomely effective descriptions of the scale of death during the war, coldly mapping out the maths that suggests that just over 13 people died every minute of the war against the USSR, or "...a new dead body every 4.6 seconds...".
Aue's journey through the War is a journey through the Holocaust, through degradation and horror, through moral depravity...through hell. Littell has written Aue's life so that he takes us to Babi Yar, to Stalingrad, to Auschwitz and into the heart of Nazi Germany as it crumbles around him at the end of the war.
Aue's friend Thomas, who is a player, is always one step ahead of Max, in rank, in sniffing out the intrigues that possess the SS, and in making sure he is well set up wherever he might be. At first, in Poland, the massacre of the Jews is almost haphazard, but, by the time Max gets to Babi Yar, the organization of killing is moving forward several steps. Littell is masterful at recreating the horror of mass murder by careful description of events seen through Aue's eyes, which is all the more disturbing as Aue is justifying the activities throughout the book.
However, while Aue can logically justify the necessity to wipe out the Jews as, according to Nazi doctrine, they are the sworn enemies of his race, participation in these events further disturb an already unstable and disturbed man. Max starts to suffer from physical ailments, vomiting and diarrhoea, and starts to endure very disturbing dreams.
When Aue is posted to Stalingrad, he is surprised to find Thomas there. Whereas Max is posted as punishment for showing up his superior in front of others, Thomas volunteered, on the basis that, if he survived, being a veteran of Stalingrad would be a great boost for his career. A part of the "Courante" section of the book to do with Aue's time in Stalingrad involves his interrogation of a Red Army Commisar, with a lively to-and-fro on the Bolshevik vs. the Nazi system, and the similarities of outlook of both of them - depending on which you were, insert "race" instead of "class" and all horrors can be justified.
Max eventually leaves Stalingrad as a casualty, with the moment of his wounding beginning the first long dream-like sequence in the book, where the reader is not sure what is real and what is fiction. Littell has Max's sister appear in this sequence, further setting up the theme of fate that runs through this work - do we create our own fate, or is it mapped out for us? Are there mitigating circumstances that can reduce our punishment for a crime, or, as the Ancient Greeks would have it, do we have to pay the price no matter what? Certainly in the last half of the book there is a growing awareness from all the protagonists that they will surely be punished for what they have done.
Even with that growing realisation, the business of the War and the Holocaust moves on, and Max is given a job by Himmler to try and coordinate getting the Jewish prisoners to work in vital industry. In it's own way, this section of the book is as sickening as the descriptions of the massacres early on in Poland and the Ukraine, with absurd powerplays and politics obstructing Aue's every attempt to at least stop the killings until the "maximum economic value" can be extracted from each Jewish life.
Max's career is helped at this stage by his parent's shadowy friend Mandelbrod, an eminence grise within the Nazi structure, who I think in the book is a symbol of Capital, and its corrupting influence on politics, no matter how ideological. His huge bulk, bevy of beautiful assistants, and horrible smell all no doubt are comments on how money distorts everything. It is Mandelbrod who encourages Aue to do his best to get the Jews working profitably for the State, and when Max fails in this, Mandelbrod turns his favours elsewhere. It is instructive, after the conversation Max had with the Commisar in Stalingrad, that Aue finds Mandelbrod in the smoking ruins of Berlin waiting to be picked up and flown to Moscow by the Red Army, where his career will continue in service to a new master.
Before we get to the final days in Berlin however, Max has travelled the Reich inspecting work-camps, and engaging in endless meetings about the most effective way to get prisoners and Jews working. There is an absurd horror in Littell's writing here of minutes and action plans revolving around how little one could feed these prisoners and still get them to be productive.
Max's personal descent continues apace as well. He visits his Mother and Step-Father in Antibes. He is disturbed to find them harbouring twins, and flees when he wakes to find both Mother and Step-Father brutally murdered...it is not explicit in the text, but it seems that Max is the murderer, and the twins are in fact a result of his incestuous relationship with his sister. It is now that the underlying structure of a Greek Tragedy starts to make itself felt, with Max pursued by two detectives on the trail of the murderer. They know Max did it, but can't find proof - Max uses his connections to get them called off, but they keep reappearing, each time with a little scrap of further evidence.
After Max is injured in a bombing raid, he goes to his Sister's estate in Pomerania to recuperate. She is not there, and this is the location of Max's final degredation. He descends into an onanistic orgy, trying to push everything behind him, even as the Russians approach. Finally Thomas comes to his rescue and gets him back to Berlin. The final pages of the book descend again into a dream-like quality, as Max's pursuers track him down, and he descends to the lowest plane by killing Thomas to save himself, thus becoming the thing he most loathes..
Despite the horror and disgust that abound when reading this book, I found it hard to put down. Max Aue is a character that garners little of the readers sympathy, despite repeated attempts on Aue's part to plead for himself. When in Stalingrad Aue "started sobbing,...I wept for my childhood, for a time when snow was a pleasure tha knew no end, when a city was a wonderful place to live in, and when a forest was not yet a conveninet place to kill people". But by the end of the book he doesn't think twice about shooting an old man playing a Bach Cantata on a church organ.
After over 900 pages, the reader is left exhausted, but the ultimate question of the Holocaust is left unanswered. It is unanswerable, it is something that comes from the depths of human nature, which thoughout history continues to reveal itself in all its horror and bestiality. The Kindly Ones is possibly the most literary attempt so far to delve into that human nature to see what lurks there, and despite it's length and failures, it is a work that the reader will mull over for a long time.
An impossible book, but one that should be read.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell