The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones is not a novel that announces itself quietly. For starters, there is the grandiose dedication: “For the dead.” Then there is the epic invocation: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened,” it begins. What follows is nearly 1,000 pages of atrocity and horror, at times pushing the bounds of readability, in the form of a “fictional memoir” of Nazi SS officer Dr. Maximilien Aue. Jonathan Littell, the novel’s American-born author, seems at first glance greatly concerned with the project of authenticity. Not only did he choose to write in French, as if to better capture the voice of his Francophone narrator (Aue is from Alsace and is half French), but his book is littered with German military terminology and attention to Nazi infrastructure so thorough it often verges on boring. But Littell has a maximalist vision of authenticity; his Aue spares no details in his journey through the epicenters of WWII’s Eastern Front, whether the brutal slaughter of the Jews or the violence of his own fantasies.

Max Aue is a smart man, and a smart narrator. Having slipped, unprosecuted, into France as Germany descended into chaos around him, he has assumed the bourgeois life of a lace merchant. His memoir is not, he claims, a reckoning; of his “notes” he writes, “I can assure you that they will at least be free of contrition.” And while he stays largely true to this promise, the novel is not without its gestures toward the exculpatory (“veryone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do” reads as plaintive, however true). An educated jurist in the security division of the SS, Aue is at once an archetypal officer — a functionary who simply carries out his orders — and a detached outsider. Not least, his sexuality sets him apart: Aue generally prefers sex with men, making him, at least in theory, a victim of the same hateful logic that drives his killing of others. Aue’s intellectualism — his ability to look inward while enacting outward atrocities — forms the core of Littell’s own line of questioning. “But why couldn’t an SS-Obersturmbannführer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man?” his protagonist asks us to consider.

The Kindly Ones is an outgrowth of this question taken to extremes, not least because Aue’s inner life is not really for the squeamish. Beneath the image of the “calm, collected, thoughtful man” that he projects to his colleagues, sexual torment roils. As it gradually emerges, Aue’s first and only love — for whom he forswears women in a pledge of loyalty — is also his twin sister. He is as coolly unrepentant about his incestuous past as he is about his wartime murders:

?the fact of the matter, I’m not ashamed to say, is that I probably would rather have been a woman?I have loved a woman. Only one, but more than anything in the world. Yet she was precisely the one I was not allowed to have. It is quite conceivable that by dreaming of myself as a woman, by dreaming of myself in a woman’s body, I was still seeking her, I wanted to draw closer to her, I wanted to be like her, I wanted to be her.

Through Aue, it seems, Littell means to reveal the consciousness of an SS officer — this one, in any case — as the site of the same messy humanity to be found anywhere else. His narrator is hardly unmoved by the crimes he commits; in one scene, almost touching in its contradiction, he falls into a rage when the officers of the Einsatzgruppen — the elite killing squads of the Eastern Front — are served blood pudding, too cruel an irony given what the day’s work demands of them. Aue’s actions against the Jews are not motivated by any deep-seated hatred; on the contrary, he dismisses those who “killed with sensual pleasure” as criminals. Nor does he identify with those who “killed out of duty, overcoming their repugnance, out of a love of order.” Rather, he observes of himself, “Passion for the absolute was a part of it, as was, I realized one day with terror, curiosity.” Aue is not altogether without a moral compass — he suffers a sort of breakdown over the horrors he has committed — but he operates according to the dictates of a strange hedonism, an inward self-justification that places him outside the bounds of normal human conduct (see also: incest). In his persistent self-analysis, Aue is, in essence, the anti-Eichmann.

Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer responsible for the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, is now perhaps best known as the poster child of Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” theory: the notion that the evils of the Holocaust were not sociopathic but rather the work of ordinary people acting within the norms of their historical moment. Eichmann is an Everyman, an agent of expediency rather than ideology. If there is any doubt that Littell sees his novel as entering into this particular philosophical dialogue, it disappears when Eichmann appears as a character in his own right. After a jovial dinner party at Eichmann’s home, featuring a turn at the violin by the host, Aue reflects:

A lot of stupid things have been written about him: he was not the enemy of mankind described at Nuremberg?nor was he the incarnation of banal evil, a soulless, faceless robot, as some sought to present him after his trial. He was a very talented bureaucrat, extremely competent at his functions, with a certain stature and a considerable sense of personal initiative, but solely within the framework of clearly circumscribed tasks.

But Aue misses the point. That Eichmann is a “talented bureaucrat” is exactly what Arendt argues: it’s Nazism as careerism. Like Eichmann, Aue has mastered the inexorable logic of bureaucracy; he exploits the ways in which the SS’s infinite paper pushing, the deferral of responsibility to others, creates the illusion of individual blamelessness. As Aue explains to a colleague, regarding corruption in the concentration camps, “Management knows the problem exists, but we can’t get mixed up in it. There are other authorities for that.” Yet even as Aue files his endless reports on concentration camp rations and military nutrition, Littell never allows us to see Aue’s actions as merely “banal.” His mind is too variegated, his self-reflexivity too sharpened. In the first half of the novel, Littell, with this intense brand of psychological realism, gives us a rare portrait — his thinking man’s Nazi inhabits a double consciousness following the will of the Führer even as he sees through it.

Unfortunately, it seems that Littell has other ideas for his novel, and soon enough, chaotically inconsistent aesthetic commitments take over. What begins as a portrait almost tedious in its quest for psychological realism descends into baroque excess and theoretical posturing as Littell trades the challenging terror of the real for the manipulative terror of the experimental. Aue’s insight disappears into a fog of narrative unreliability marked by its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic of violence: gang-raping child soldiers, an ambiguous matricide, incest fantasies indulged on a guillotine. It would be hard to overstate the extent of the horror contained within the pages of The Kindly Ones. Littell does not hold back in his descriptions of the Holocaust, and despite their nearly unstomachable brutality, they do have an unsettling power, especially in the sections on the Einsatzgruppen. Aue admits that curiosity is among the driving forces of his murders, and we too, by reading, give in to similar curiosity as much as we recoil — it is the worst possible form of rubbernecking. But as the war, and the novel, wear on, horror stops playing its necessary role in the Holocaust plot. Instead, it becomes the plot.

In keeping with the novel’s overweening penchant for shock value, the incest story commands more and more space, culminating in a hallucinatory sequence in which, sequestered from the ruins of Berlin at his sister’s abandoned estate, Aue indulges in a fit of feverish self-sodomizing. The novel is as graphic in its sex scenes as in its violence (both of which, incidentally, share a particular fascination with excrement). In its aspiration to Grecian tragedy (see also: the title, an allusion to the Furies), The Kindly Ones disintegrates by the end into a kind of cruel comedy. Two SS police officers, suspecting Aue of killing his mother and stepfather, track him with a monomaniacal devotion straight out of Law & Order. If Littell means the decay of narrative logic to expose Aue’s instability — the unseen psychic toll of what he has done — he misses his chance. The resulting case study in deviant psychology only makes Nazism seem that much more improbable, and in its way, that much more banal.

Is a tried-and-true documentation of known atrocities enough to drive a novel? Probably not, and it is understandable that Littell should want to venture into more elaborate and ethically challenging material. After all, fidelity to history is not the single ingredient in moral responsibility. His is not a traditional Nazi novel in any sense, free as it is of swastikas and pomp. Hitler himself barely even appears (that is, until the implausible finale, wherein Aue bites the Führer’s nose). But Littell’s detours into sensationalism make a mockery of the book — impressive if controversial — that it seems he set out to write. To venture willingly into this territory, as an author, is to assume a moral burden: the deliberate exposure to such a scale of human cruelty exacts a toll on the reader, just as it does, one would imagine, on the author. These events are not, nor should they be, off limits to literature, but it isn’t always clear what Littell hopes to achieve by wading into such gruesome history. Somewhere along the way, it starts to feel as if Littell has become entranced by the power of his own fiction to horrify. What began as an attempt, admirably ambitious, to awaken in readers a sense of the human face behind the Holocaust devolves into a show of moral hubris that even its hero, if you can call him that, admits is too long.