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The Horror System

Cool, calculated, methodical bureaucracy the real monster in this mammoth, contentious novel

Jennifer Daniel

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 4/8/2009

The Kindly Ones

By Jonathan Littell

McClelland & Stewart, 2009. 992 pp.

Nothing breeds curiosity--and sales--in the literary world like controversy. Which is why when you've got a 900-plus page novel about the mindset of a Nazi officer--never mind one that's been praised by the French literary establishment and panned by many members of America's--then you know you've got a book worth reading.

Such is the case with Jonathan Littell's massive, bewildering, frustrating, and occasionally captivating novel, The Kindly Ones. First published in France in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes, this epic catalog of Nazi Germany's atrocities was lauded with acclaim and went on to win the country's top literary awards. When the English translation was released last month, the American reception was markedly different. "Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent," clamored The New York Times. "Expansive and repulsive," cried The Washington Post. So what are those potential readers who don't have powerful voices in the literary community--namely, those who have to shell out $30 for this behemoth--to make of it?

The book reads, first and foremost, like a collection of the Nazi regime's greatest hits: those garish and shocking moments that have become ingrained in today's historical consciousness. Even the narrator, one Dr. Maximilien Aue (more on him in a moment) recognizes this, passing over descriptions of Auschwitz simply because the reader can read about them from other sources. This is not to say, however, that Littell's novel lacks the violence that has garnered it so much criticism. He never turns a blind eye to individual or mass murders, which are often described in painful, almost juvenile detail. Brains seem to splatter at a rapid rate in these pages.

The Kindly Ones is structured as a memoir of Aue's experience rising up the ranks of the SS during World War II. Right at the start, he pleads his case as an "everyman" to the reader--a common individual who was simply following orders. "What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been," he intones. And yet it's difficult to identify with Aue, let alone connect him with the average citizen of Nazi Germany. He interacts with members of the highest echelons of the party in ways that most people never did: dining with Adolf Eichmann and his family; hunting grouse with Albert Speer; even receiving a commendation from Hitler himself. Like some goose-stepping Forrest Gump, Aue conveniently manages to be on the outskirts--or at the center of--events such as the Jewish massacre at Babi Yar, the collapse of Stalingrad, the evacuation of Auschwitz, and the fall of Berlin.

This is, of course, to say nothing of Aue's sexual proclivities. Obsessed and frustrated by his incestuous desires for his sister, Aue resorts to random sexual encounters with other men, bizarre sexual fantasies (some involving Martians from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs), and random acts of self-sodomy--each episode as stubbornly detailed as the scenes of radical violence. Perhaps there's supposed to be some grand connection between the base nature of racial genocide and sexual lust. But when a Sadean episode appears, late in the novel, featuring Aue running rampant throughout his sister's abandoned house, the bizarre sex becomes monotonous.

Monotony is a key characteristic in The Kindly Ones, and while it fails with Aue's sexual activities, it succeeds where Littell describes--at grand lengths--the bureaucratic and political inner workings of the Nazi Party. If anything, what Littell accomplishes here is the creation of a new literary sub-genre: bureau-porn. One of the novel's driving points appears to be that all of the horror and slaughter we know so well ultimately had it roots in the administrative offices, interdepartmental relations, and political philosophies of the Nazi machine. What does it say that one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the entire novel is not a post-mortem abortion committed by a crazed soldier but an extended sequence in which Nazi higher-ups arrange for extensive field research and a conference to determine whether a group of people living in the Caucasus are descendents of Jews and therefore in need of extermination? Littell's depictions of Nazi office politics--brilliant in their sheer burden on the reader--would be as entertaining as the universe of a Kafka novel, were it not so deadly serious.

Reading The Kindly Ones is a long, dirty, and most certainly uncomfortable slog through the muck and slime of one of the 20th century's darkest chapters. In many ways, it does for the Nazi regime what American Psycho--with its own ultraviolent subject matter and monotonous descriptions--did for 1980s New York. Some readers will find the trek enlightening; others will find it unbearable. But when--or if--you make it to the final, 983rd page of this massive work, you'll have completed one of the more intriguing reading experiences of the last few years.

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