At least once a year a novel is paraded before us as a literary masterpiece, something that will make enough of a splash to leave us watching the ripples for many years to come. Generally, this novel will be American, but occasionally it will originate from elsewhere; almost always it will be at least 500 pages long, even though experience tells us that great literature tends not be measured using scales. The Kindly Ones is one such novel – I can, in fact, remember reading about it before it was translated into English. By that time it had already picked up awards in France, and it did indeed sound intriguing. Written by an expatriate American in French, it apparently told the story of the Second World War from the point of view of an unrepentant Nazi.
This central character is Max Aue. He begins the narrative with a defence of his actions:
“I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.”
However, almost 1,000 pages later and it’s still not clear whether Littell intends this ironically or whether it is, in fact, the novel’s central message. One problem is that Aue is about as far from an everyman character as you are likely to get. He also says in his defence that he has “loved a woman”, but he is referring to his sister. When their incestuous relationship is discovered by their mother (the father has long since disappeared), and they are separated, he refuses to sleep with other women, only with men so that he can feel what she feels. By the novel’s end he is famously pleasuring himself on the branch of a tree. Clearly (or perhaps that should be, hopefully) Littell is using this metaphorically to tell us something about Nazi psychology. There are certainly occasions when the similarities between the Jews and the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks and the Nazis are drawn. A captured Russian Commissar discusses this with Aue at length:
“In the end our two systems aren’t so different. In principle at least.”
However, it does make it unlikely that the reader will be thinking, ‘that could be me…’
Despite this, the novel is very effective in places at conveying the cruelty and the insanity of the Nazi’s attitude towards the Jewish people through its point of view. Aue’s early involvement in Eastern Europe allows us to see the practical problems encountered when attempting to shoot large numbers of unarmed civilians:
“…the method imposed by von Reichenau, with just two guns per condemned man, had its disadvantages: if you wanted to be sure of your shot you had to aim at the head rather than the chest, which caused spattering, the men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.”
This approach, if anything, intensifies the horror. Later, as the Germans face defeat in Russia, time is wasted pointlessly trying to decide if a particular tribe are of Jewish race or if they simply follow the Jewish religion. As the war nears its end, Aue finds himself involved in an ironic battle to keep those in work camps strong and healthy enough to work. Again, the way in which this is presented simply as a practical problem gives us an insight into the psychology of dictatorship. Even as German troops starve in Stalingrad, their starvation is being studied.
Littell is also good on the way in which Aue and others are affected by what they witness and take part in. Aue is quickly afflicted by vomiting, something he still suffers from years after the war. Other officers go mad, and it is likely Aue does too. While in Stalingrad he survives a bullet through the head and later murders his mother and step father, though apparently his actions leave no memory. From this point on the narrative is less reliable, including Aue’s amusing but increasingly unlikely shadowing by two policemen determined to convict him of the killings.
Some scenes are both moving and memorable. The starving, almost feral soldiers of Stalingrad, and the moment where his friend Thomas, scoops his intestines back onto his stomach after being wounded; the forced march from the concentration camp; and the final moments in a ruined Berlin. Others, however, are less involving, particularly the time spent in his mother’s house where he apparently loses his mind and there is a tiresome (for Aue and the reader) amount of masturbation. The novel is too long, too crammed with research, and Aue is ultimately just too unusual to carry it. Not a masterpiece then, but not entirely a failure either.