There is one question above all others that hung in my head as I waded through the midsection of Jonathan Littell’s world war one epic The Kindly Ones: ‘Does the holocaust really need a subplot?’ I tried to imagine Levi’s If This is a Man with some kind of tangential secondary narrative and tried to imagine whether this could ever be anything less than a dilution, a distraction. I couldn’t. Of course there is a line between these authors that I’m ignoring. Primo Levi was a holocaust survivor, his narrative one of urgent witness. Littell, on the other hand, is a novelist writing in the twenty-first century. Yet, Littell purposefully, purposely smudges the line.
The Kindly Ones is a counterfeited narrative of witness. It is the fictional memoir of Max Aue, an ex-officer in the Sicherheitsdienst (the SS’s intelligence agency) recording his wartime narrative in late middle age whilst managing a lace factory in post-war Northern France. His narrative spans the temporal and spatial extremes of the third Reich, from a reconnoitring mission in pre-war France, to the Ukraine under occupation, to Stalingrad and the Fuhrer’s bunker as Berlin topples.
It is a story of initiation into an extreme system and what happens when that system collapses. Max Aue’s acclimatisation into the mechanics of the Reich is perhaps particularly difficult. He is a homosexual and also having an ongoing incestual relationship with his twin sister. Added to this difficult situation, he suffers severe bouts of diarrhoea, which receive close narrative attention throughout.
Perhaps most difficult, is Aue’s academic mind, which must be nulled under the SS. In the second chapter (Allemendes I and II) Aue’s report on French attitudes to the war poses a rare rebellion towards facts as Aue collated data in France and prepares his report. The bad news he breaks is that France will probably enter into a war with Germany if Germany invades Poland. It doesn’t even reach the upper limits of command. Meanwhile his comrade Thomas gets promoted for telling the Reichsführer what he wants to hear. “I had gone seriously astray, I had poorly interpreted the ambiguous signs from above, I hadn’t correctly anticipated the Fuhrer’s will.”
Following a failed attempt to step back from “the interminable National-Socialist circus games”, Aue is sucked into the Reich machine when an officer threatens he will expose Aue’s homosexuality if he refuses to follow the course decided for him. Aue intellectualises the situation. The Nazi machine becomes little more than a corporate body through which Aue gets promoted. This is easy enough, while things are going well for the Germans, but eventually, the brandy, coffee cups and cigars of the SS dissolve into the hell of the Soviet front. And it is here the book succeeds most, in its closing chapters as the Reich begins to crumble and as Aue moves from hunter to hunted as the German lines collapse on the Eastern front.
At times, The Kindly Ones is astonishingly and unflinchingly violent. Rape, murder, mass-murder all ensue as the reader enters the book’s depths. But somehow, following repeated exposure to the horrors of the holocaust from Levi’s If This is a Man through to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and beyond, we are numbed to this. The real shock is the way in which Aue intellectualises his experiences of war – Freud, Plato, Nietzsche, Flaubert, Stendhal, Zola, Bach, Kant are but a few of the references he makes. The idea that not all Nazi officers were lunatics or merely following orders, that many committed atrocities well beyond those ordered is one that runs throughout this book.
Like Aue, there is frequently the feeling that Littell is messing with too many ideas here. It is tempting to say ‘playing’ rather than ‘messing’, but it is this playful element which the book so completely lacks. For Aue, intellectual and cultural references act as a buffer from the real experience; for the reader, these also act as a buffer between us and the verity of the narrative. It is a frustrating position to be left in for over nine hundred pages. By the time Aue has a Freudian moment looking up at the Fuhrer and substituting him for his dead father, the web of Freudianism has become all too messy.
Littell’s book has received rapturous praise from critics in France, having been awarded the Prix Goncourt and the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du Roman. La Nouvel Observateur proclaimed it “A new War and Peace” – as the English version’s spine proclaims proudly. The Kindly Ones is certainly brave and ambitious, but it is not a great book. Its dialogue is mostly heavy and unnuanced, its characterisation sketchy and most significantly for me, it is plagued by trite clichés and irritatingly ‘Symbolic’ episodes which seem smug rather than selfconscious. The opening lines: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know…” are a salient example. Aue’s current employment acts on a similar level, he had been a part of increasing the efficiency of murdering Jews in Eastern Europe and is now a manager of a lace factory. The overseer of the commercial process and the overseer of the holocaust process are the same man: transferable skills Littell seems to be saying. The symbolism of a game of Backgammon in Stallingrad jars similarly:
“Those aren’t the rules for Backgammon,” I pointed out. – “Listen boy, you’re not in Munich, here.” – “I’m not from Munich.” – “Berlin then. We’re playing nardi.” […] “all right, I’m going to kill you.” – “Calm down. If I had lost, you could have killed me, but I won so why should you kill me.”
The list could go on and on. Lace and holocaust; rage and love; order and chaos; winning and losing, there are many contrasts between the beautiful and the horrific in this book. All these contrasts end with the same conclusion – that the contrast is not a contrast at all, that the processes are the same and that he who murderers in the holocaust is the same “man” as he who reads the book.
Throughout the introductory chapter,Aue begins threads of narrative. He neither cuts them short nor carries them through; instead he repeatedly states “maybe I’ll come back to it at some point”. The narrative bobbins are loaded into the machine of the book. The pattern that they weave is as complex and intricate as the lace in Max Aue’s factory. Yet for all its elaborate design, the book’s fabric is too mechanical, a kind of realist-novel-by-numbers where the paints used are lurid and unmixable.