Jun 28 2009

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

Published by at 11:40 pm under Book reviews

There are some books, not many, that you want to carry on reading, long after the final page. It might be the setting or the theme that you love. Perhaps it’s the main character, someone you admire and long to travel further alongside. It might be the quality of the language. Usually, in a good book, all of these are present in some form, but when you reach the end, you’re glad. It’s been a great journey, but it’s time to move on.

What on earth could be the reasons to want to carry on reading The Kindly Ones, the grim and very long first-person fictional account of a senior German officer from the Second World War? The main character is unbearable: opportunistic, incestuous, amoral and quite unrepentant of his involvement in the mechanised mass murder that took place at that time. The language is curiously matter-of-fact, well-constructed, sometimes verbose (but rewardingly so), and always precise, unflinching even when recounting the most awful scenes.

And, yes, the settings are vividly realised, but they’re not places you’d want to hang out in for a long time: early-wartime Berlin, collaborationist France, Poland in winter, Ukrainian steppes, occupied Russia, and finally the collapsing Berlin, hammered by thousand-bomber Allied air raids and oncoming Soviet armour.

The themes too are grim: how could ordinary men and women take part in the highly organised racial killings; by exactly what means were distinctions made between ethnic groups, distinctions that meant the difference between life and death; how much did German citizens in the homeland know about the roving extermination squads and later the full-scale death camps whose purpose was part economic, part political and wholly murderous; what kind of person could live in such a world and what would they say to us now.

So why is this such a compelling book, at least for this reader? The answer is simply that the voice of the central character, Max Aue, is so cleverly created and beautifully sustained, that I simply wanted to carry on listening to him. In the end, there were no new answers to the question of how such atrocities could have been committed. Indeed, after the several early and harrowing descriptions of mass killings, the topic was largely (and wisely) only dealt with in the abstract. Even the sexual weirdness is barely actualised; after some early graphic scenes it appears only sporadically, arguably as a counterpoint device to sustain interest lest the dense prose might prove wearying.

And that’s what fascinates about this book. In the end, the story isn’t about rationalising or coming to terms with what happened, although many reviewers have gone to great lengths to explore this perspective. It isn’t about the consequences of bizarre sexual practices or murders. It is simply a tale about getting away with it, of surviving. It’s a fiction that wants itself heard; that has found a voice to hold your attention. I present empirical evidence in the following admission: I didn’t really care about the details of what I was reading, the locations, the plot twists, the actual historical characters who populate the story, who was what rank and what the acronyms stood for — there are places to find reliable sources of this information, this is a novel after all — I just went with the voice. And that, I think, is what fiction does and must do. It must tell us that we need to listen. All the rest, themes, characters, historical research, language, settings, structure, all these combine or are combined by the voice; none are important in their own right.

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is a big book covering much ground, much history, and clearly took a great deal of research to write. But it is the singularity and simplicity of the voice of the narrator, the voice of the book, that is the reason I’ll remember it for a long time.

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