The Kindly Ones

‘The Kindly Ones’

by Jonathan Littell. Published by Chatto & Windus; pp992; £20.00

by Richard Romeo

There is no doubt that the Kindly Ones is a difficult novel. Its erudition, its decadent aesthetic, one even hates to admit it, its so very artistic and cinematic rendering of much of the evils of Nazism, is notable. The full flowering inferno of the Eastern Front is described here in close to one thousand pages of densely-packed text, as, in effect, brutally writing, to quote the German historian Joachim Fest describing Heinrich Himmler, “the epitaph of millions”. How do we reconcile this? That, we as readers, amidst such monstrousness, can actually come to admire the book, that we, as readers, are much like, as Littell quotes early in the book quoting Eckhart, “an angel in Hell flying in his own cloud of Paradise”?

The author Jonathan Littell (and we shouldn’t forget the wonderful translation from the French by Charlotte Mandell) probably lost many mainstream readers confronted with such a main character as Max Aue—he is well-spoken but unrepentant, he is smart but cold, he has an incestuous relationship with his sister and despises his mother, he is unfaithful to friends, he is a closet homosexual and a murderer, and ultimately he believes what he did in the SS was right. He assaults his readers, arguing that he is very much like them, and under certain circumstances, they would do like he did, that other countries have and will probably act in similar ways (Vietnam is mentioned) and as the years pass, much of what happened then will probably be forgotten. Though Aue believes this, Littell’s book refutes all of that, by simply writing his book (‘The Kindly Ones’ is dedicated to all the dead) for us. (There is a curious editor’s note in the beginning of the book about the author’s use of acronyms and other specialized German monikers that almost implies Aue’s confession has been found, and therefore, Aue had been as well, thus ensuring a living testament to infamy.)

Littell has successfully digested a fair amount of research and seamlessly incorporated it into his fiction. Babi Yar, Stalingrad, Berlin in 1945, to name just a few mise-en scene, are marked by a pure blending of reportage, anecdote, fantasy, and historical recreation. Having spent years researching it, Littell reportedly wrote the book in Moscow, which seems fitting considering the sufferings of many in the Soviet Union. (Aue calculates that one individual was killed approximately every six seconds, every day, for four years, on the Eastern Front, totaling some 20 million plus souls, many of those civilians.)

The Kindly Ones is awash in blood, it is the primary color in what is a horrific tapestry. Much of the killing depicted in the book is what the historian Timothy Snyder calls “The Unknown Holocaust”. Many have heard of the gas chambers, Auschwitz, and the other death camps in eastern Poland but what has not received as much focus, were the more than 1 million people (mostly Jews) shot, hung (or burned alive in their villages) in places like Babi Yar by the Einsatzgruppen, members of the Germany Army, Romanian units, Ukrainian partisans, and others. These scenes are some of the hardest to read; they are ugly, and distressing like watching some of the more memorable scenes in Klimov’s film ‘Come and See’ (1985) which depicts in graphic detail the murder of a Byelorussian village by the SS and its Ukrainian collaborators. (The village’s inhabitants, some of whom are gang raped, some shot, are then collectively locked into a local church, men, women, children, and burned alive.)

One aspect of the novel that one may find puzzling is the major subplot, the investigation of Aue by two detectives for the murder of Aue’s parents in France. Amidst the mass death occurring at the time, sanctioned and perpetrated by the German state, it seems incongruous that such a small violent event would get so much attention by the police and that they would investigate, and determinately hunt down an SS officer, to boot. Many critics have noted the utter ridiculousness of such a thing ever happening. However, Max Aue does slightly resemble, the twisted and murderous SS general Tanz, played by Peter O’Toole, in the movie version of ‘The Night of the Generals’ (1966) which also involves an investigation of so-called “small killings” (the serial killing of a number of women) amidst the larger carnage and momentous events going on at the same time (the events surrounding the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944). There are also explicit references to the justice-seeking Eumenides (aka The Kindly Ones) by the major, a military intelligence officer, the leader of the investigation in the movie.

Aue meets many of the usual suspects as the events of the novel unfold: Himmler, Eichmann, even Hitler, in a bizarre scene in the bunker, along with many of the lower echelons of the SS, its bureaucrats, its madmen, intellectuals, its mostly average men (and women) doing their bit for the cause but mostly just living day by day without any overarching ideology as espoused by the party. One can’t emphasize how well Littell has flavored his book with well-placed portions of the surreal: Aue becomes a passenger on a hot air balloon near Stalingrad; he is hounded by three identical Aryan Amazon women who pester him with offers of sexual congress for the good of the Reich; at one point he sees Hitler transformed in front of his eyes into a rabbi during one of his speeches (which oddly mirrors a scene in Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s epic film ‘Hitler: A Film form Germany’ (1978)). There are many others.

In the end, the question remains–have we had enough books about the Nazis, and does the Kindly Ones help us to understand them? That is not for me to answer, but we surely need those willing, like Jonathan Littell, to confront those who were willing to inexplicably scoop up those endless numbers of people and willingly write their epitaphs. It can never represent justice for the victims of men like Aue (and in many other times and in many other countries, not just Germany) but it does seem to me that the exposure of that bitter reality is the least we can do to remember those who suffered all those years ago.

This entry was posted in Books and tagged Jonathan Littell, Richard Romeo, The Kindly Ones.

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