Unrepentant and Telling of Horrors Untellable
Originally published in France in 2006, “Les Bienveillantes” (“The Kindly Ones”) won the Prix Goncourt, that country’s most prestigious literary award, as well as a prize from the Académie Française. The novel, told from the point of view of an unrepentant Nazi and written in French by the American-born Jonathan Littell, was hailed by the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur as “a new ‘War and Peace.’ ” It became an international best seller and the talk of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and its English-language rights, Publishers Weekly reported, went for “1 million-ish” dollars. A review in Foreign Policy magazine hailed the book as “one of the greatest accomplishments of postwar fiction.”
THE KINDLY ONES
By Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell.
983 pages. Harper. $29.99.
The novel’s gushing fans, however, seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, “The Kindly Ones” — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.
Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” after repeated viewings of “The Night Porter” and “The Damned.”
There are pages and pages in which the narrator, Max Aue, tries to rationalize the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, and pages and pages in which he describes the dead bodies he saw on the Eastern front in Russia, and later, at Auschwitz, where he served as a kind of efficiency expert, worrying about the overloading of the ovens and the basic rule of warehousing: “first in, first out.”
We are subjected to pages and pages of Max’s grotesque sexual fantasies (like sodomizing his twin sister, Una, on a guillotine plank); his leering descriptions of the genitalia of male lovers and female corpses; and his frequent bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. He also tells us about his hatred of his mother and stepfather, both of whom he has possibly murdered, and his killing of his best friend.
Although Aue contends that he is “a man like other men,” “a man like you” and depicts himself as a cultivated intellectual who reads Flaubert and Kant, his story is hardly a case study in the banality of evil. 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.
Unable to understand Aue, much less sympathize with him, the reader is not goaded, as in the case of “Good” and “Mephisto,” to question his or her own capacity for moral compromise. Instead Mr. Littell simply gives us a monster talking at monstrous length about his monstrous deeds, encouraging us to write off Nazis as cartoonish madmen — strutting psychopaths in black SS uniforms, murdering Jews out of the same Freudian kinks that might drive them to murder members of their own families. And he does so while wallowing in the most sordid details of Aue’s story.
When Aue isn’t talking dispassionately about the mechanics of rounding up Jews (spreading rumors that they were going to Palestine so they would not panic) or the difficulty of disposing of bodies (“it wasn’t so much the gassing that posed a problem, but the ovens were overloaded”), he’s describing grotesque scenes of degradation and slaughter: Jews being lashed with a horsewhip; a baby being cut out of its dying mother by Caesarean section, then smashed to death against the corner of a stove; hanged men with “their tongues sticking out,” streams of saliva running “from their mouths to the sidewalk”; emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, forced to defecate “as they walked, like horses.”
Aue’s own remarks tend to be insufferably pompous (“Doctor, I suffer from only one disease, sexually transmissible and irremediably fatal: life”), while those of associates tend to devolve into raw, anti-Semitic rants. Asked about the unsanitary condition of the prisoners, one man says: “Anyway, Jews are like venison, they’re better when they’re a little gamy.” Another talks of building “an anthropological garden” in Krakow, Poland, a kind of zoo where “we will gather together specimens of all the peoples who have disappeared or are about to disappear in Europe.”
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.Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust (“through aesthetic principles or stylization,” he contended, “the unimaginable ordeal” is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims”), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that “in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,” we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as “a staggering triumph.”