The Kindly Ones
“I am a man like you,” cries Maximilien Aue, at the outset of this bulging, lurid tale, “I am just like you!” He might be overstating things, especially as a former SS officer who took seriously the task of improving the Final Solution’s efficiency. For this and other transgressions—of which there are many in this unwieldy, alternately fascinating and impressively researched novel—Max is unrepentant. “What I did,” he writes, “I did with my eyes open, believing it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it might have been.”
In other words, the business of war—killing—is a bureaucracy, and The Kindly Ones draws the reader back to the period between 1941 and 1945, when Max participated in or was witness to some of the most hideous killing in human history. The book is gaudy with detail, from the baroque titles of officers to the reports they filed and the movements of their troops.
To read this novel is to feel the ooze and creep of Hitler’s army as it slaughtered its way forward on the Eastern front, a blizzard of paperwork stoking its sense of inevitability. There is, at the beginning, a moment where Max seems as shocked as the reader will become at all the killing. At a castle in the Ukraine, a pile of bloated, stinking corpses yellows with age. Max struggles not to vomit.
“This smell,” he recalls, “was the beginning and the end of everything, the very signification of our existence.” But this sentiment slowly gives way to the tidal pull that sucks Max into the heart of action, and into a spiraling wave of reminiscences that vividly conjures his cruel mother, abandoning father and the untoward, masochistic relationship he shared with his twin sister, Una.
The Kindly Ones made headlines in France two years ago when it became the second novel in that nation’s history to win both the grand jury prize of the Academie Francaise and the Prix Goncourt. It’s not hard to understand the stir. Its feverish voice is weirdly mesmerizing, the scope awesome, and the fact that Littell—an American who was raised partly in France and educated at Yale—wrote it in French makes for a striking cross-cultural moment in a country that tends to be stern about outsiders in its literary world.
And yet, The Kindly Ones is a tawdry, familiar tale in comparison to recent novels which covered similar ground, such as William T. Vollmann’s magisterial Europe Central, which visited the same question in 2004 that Littell bothers to a froth—how is evil of such magnitude committed by everyday people?—in language that was beautiful and inventive.
By comparison, The Kindly Ones often reads like a beefed-up thriller; the metaphorical steroids of Greek mythology and intellectual history give it muscles merely for show. Each section follows a vaguely musical theme, swimming in a slurry of research, interrupted occasionally by agitated vignettes of Max coupling with young men. They can’t drown out a reader’s sensation that Max’s brand of evil isn’t just banal but a cliché.