Book review: The Kindly Ones

A celebrated French perspective on Nazi conquest too seldom rises above Teutonic cliché, writes Gavin Bowd


Jonathan Littell

Chatto & Windus, 20

WHEN Les Bienveillantes, the first novel by Franco-American Jonathan Littell, appeared in 2006, it was hailed by Le Figaro as a "monument of contemporary literature". The novel went on to win the Prix Goncourt and sell a million copies in France. The book is certainly monumental in size: weighing in at almost 1,000 pages, and taking weeks, if not months, to read, its success had a depressive effect on book sales. Now translated by Charlotte Mandell as The Kindly Ones, anglophone readers have a chance to assess the hyperbole.

The Kindly Ones is a fictional memoir by one Max Aue, an officer in the security service of the SS. His adventures span Nazi Germany's war on the Eastern Front, and involve encounters with major players of those dark years. Aue witnesses, and occasionally participates in, the massacre of Jews, notably the Einsatzgruppen's notorious Grosse Aktion at Babi Yar. He gets as far as Chechnya before miraculously escaping the cauldron of Stalingrad. After a sojourn in France, where he hangs out in Parisian cafs with the collaborationist intellectuals Robert Brasillach and Lucien Rebatet, he is back in Berlin enjoying the favours of Heinrich Himmler. The twilight of the Third Reich sees Aue grouse-shooting with Albert Speer, then trying to divert towards slave-labour some of the Hungarian Jews "evacuated" by his "old friend" Adolf Eichmann. Inevitably, in late April 1945, he visits the Fhrer's bunker in Berlin, where he is decorated, but behaves in such a perverse fashion as to precipitate the novel's apocalyptic conclusion.

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It could be said that Littell's painstaking research in archives and on the territory of the former Soviet Union enabled him to give literary life to the Nazi campaign in the East. We see the tensions between the Wehrmacht and the SS, the psychological trauma experienced by some of Hitler's executioners, and the twisted pedantry of debates about the benefits of extermination. But the 'blockbuster', name-dropping nature of Aue's adventure seems too implausible. His frequent criticisms of the stupidity of the extermination policy, and lucid assessment of the war effort, seem incompatible with his effortless rise through the ranks. There is none of the anti-semitic fervour or class resentment which could explain his commitment to the cause.

Indeed, the flatness of Aue is only reinforced by sensationalist attempts at characterisation: for he manages to combine the vices of sodomy – itself an old Nazi clich – incest with his sister, and an urge to murder his mother and stepfather. Aue's constant vomiting, diarrhoea and nightmares about underground passageways seem clunkingly symbolic. Other characters, such as his epicurean comrade Thomas, are too sketchy. Littell's stab at a sinister Nazi businessman, Dr Mandelbrod, with his collection of cats and Aryan Amazons, owes more to Sean Connery than Weltanschauung.

The text often wears its research too obviously: textbook passages on Caucasian language variety and racial anthropology are untidily shaped into reported speech. At times, the narrator's observations are more Michael Palin than Martin Bormann: "I went to walk by myself in Tsvetkin Park, behind the Lermontov gallery, a curious pavilion of pale blue wood, with pointed turrets and Art Deco windows." The dialogue could belong to a Nazi version of Berlitz: "I've been appointed to the AOK – Oh excellent! I am at the AOK too. Have you eaten yet? – Not yet – Come with me, then, there's a good caf down below." The reader can get overwhelmed by the constant exchanges between Sturmbanfhrer, Standartenfhrer and Obergruppenfhrer, among others.

There is, in Littell's prose, a bombastic overreach. This is a pity. For a dogged reader will be rewarded by some excellent concluding pages where Littell displays a talent for vividly describing the horrors of the Nazi Gtterdmmerung. But all in all, a reader would learn more about the Eastern Front from recent non-fiction such as Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire. In literary terms, The Kindly Ones cannot rival the characterisation and narrative verve of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow or, indeed, Patrick Modiano's Le Ronde De Nuit. Nevertheless, Littell's triumph raises the question: why have the French become fascinated with the oppressor rather than the victim?

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