Book review: The Kindly Ones

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The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell Chatto & Windus, 992pp, £20

DESPITE HIS NAME AND AMERI-can parentage, Jonathan Littell writes in French, having been brought up and educated in France. This huge novel, now translated by Charlotte Mandell, won the Prix Goncourt and the main prize awarded by the Acadmie Franaise and has been a bestseller in several countries. The French edition was highly praised by Anita Brookner and Le Nouvel Observateur went so far as to call it "a new War and Peace". It isn't that, for reasons to be given later, but it is certainly a monumental achievement, even if to my mind a seriously flawed one.

Narrator Dr Max Aue is a former SS intelligence officer and war criminal. Adopting a new identity after escaping to France in 1945, he reinvents himself as a family man and the manager of a silk factory, doing so more easily because his hated mother was French and he spent his early years in France, after the disappearance of his German father and mother's remarriage to a Frenchman. In an introduction he justifies himself, pleading "necessity". "The entirely arbitrary distinction", he tells us, between "military operations and atrocities … is a soothing fantasy of the victors" – the western victors, that is, since the Soviets, "despite their rhetoric, have always understood what was what".

He then embarks on his story. He was assigned to an Einsatzgruppe, arresting and liquidating Jews, Bolsheviks and partisans. The work was distasteful, but had to be done, and it was his business to report on efficiency levels.

Falling foul of a superior in the Caucasus, he was sent to Stalingrad in the last days of the siege,. Getting a bullet in the head, he was invalided out and woke in a hospital bed to find himself being decorated by Himmler. An interlude in France followed during which he may (or may not) have murdered his mother and stepfather. The uncertainty arose because he was suffering from hallucinations, in one of which he saw Hitler transformed into a rabbi as he made a speech. Back in Germany, though pursued by two dogged members of the police who suspect he is guilty of these murders, he worked with Eichmann in carrying out the Final Solution, while also liaising with Albert Speer, who demanded living slave labourers rather than dead Jews. Then he is in Berlin – and Hitler's bunker – as the Russians close in, before making his escape.

Max is at pains to establish that he is a National Socialist by conviction, not for reasons of expediency, and an intellectual, happy to debate philosophy, ethnology, linguistics, literature and music. Don't think he enjoyed his work. On the contrary, much of it disturbed him, and, apart from hallucinations, he suffered throughout the war years from bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea. (There is too much of this and it is boring as well as disgusting.) He is a neurotic, and psychologically unbalanced. He is obsessed with his lost father and twin sister. As children they had an incestuous relationship. She grew out of it – though suffering a nervous breakdown – and is now married to an anti-Nazi baron who is a distinguished composer and confined to a wheelchair. Max didn't. In revenge, as it were, he picks up rent boys to sodomise him, so that in his twisted imagination he can, as it were, be the sister who has rejected him. It should be said that, however repellent, Max is a convincing character, and that many of his self-justifying arguments are unsettling.

The sweep of the book is tremendous, and many of the individual scenes – some near-idyllic moments in the Caucasus and the hell of Stalingrad – are wonderfully done. Likewise, if Max is putting the devil's case, it has to be said that he does it powerfully. Some of what he says may be dismissed as trendy – his identification of Zionism with National Socialism seems to be directed at early 21st century critics of Israel; though it isn't, of course, new. Despite reservations, this is a novel that compels the reader to examine assumptions often too easily arrived at, about crime and guilt.

Yet there are obvious weaknesses – and not only in Max's world-view. I am ready to set aside one obvious objection: the sheer improbability of Max's total recall of conversations and long speeches so many years after the event. This is surely permissible as a literary device, one all but inescapable in any first-person narrative.

Jonathan Littell has, however, fallen into the trap that lurks in wait for anyone writing a historical novel – the lure of research. Of course research is necessary to write this sort of book, but its results should be absorbed by the novelist, not flung in the face of the reader. Littell, however, has put everything in. There are pages of bureaucratic detail and pages of discussion concerning the ethnology and languages of the Caucasus. All this, which should be in the background, weighs down the novel. The reader is required to plough through material which should have been confined to the author's notebooks.

The Kindly Ones is a hugely ambitious work, but the comparison with Tolstoy is ridiculous, and actually highlights the chief weakness of the novel. Of course there are boring passages in War and Peace – the disquisitions on the philosophy of history which most of us skip, second time round at least. But what you remember from Tolstoy's novel is the vivid individuality of the characters, the brilliance of the set-pieces. Here, most of the characters remain mere names; none of them comes to life. This is perhaps a reflection of Max's crazy solipsism, but it deprives the book of that sympathetic human interest which a great novel always offers. I finished it wondering if Littell would not have come closer to writing the great novel he clearly intended to produce if he had dispensed with Max as narrator and written the book in the third person.