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BOOK REVIEW

'The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell

March 15, 2009|Laila Lalami | Lalami's new novel, "Secret Son," will be published in April.

The Kindly Ones

A Novel

Jonathan Littell, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

Harper: 984 pp., $29.99

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Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare's Richard III and "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In "The Kindly Ones," the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.

"The Kindly Ones" is ostensibly the memoir of Maximilien Aue, a legal scholar who joins the main intelligence branch within the SS and slowly rises through the echelons of power. As a Nazi officer, he witnesses or participates in the major events of World War II -- the Eastern Front, the Battle of Stalingrad, the massacres in Auschwitz -- but evades capture after the fall of the Third Reich. He flees to France, uses his prewar connections to start a lace business, marries, has children and grandchildren, and leads the quiet life of a petit bourgeois.

In occasional flashbacks, the reader discovers a few details about Aue's birth and upbringing. When Aue was just a young boy, his father, a German veteran of World War I, went to visit a relative and never returned. Aue's mother then married a Frenchman, moving the family to the Cote d'Azur. For several years, Aue carried on an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una, until the two were found out and swiftly separated. Aue later has many homosexual encounters because, he says, he hopes to replicate his sister's sexual pleasures with him. If you think this story is unpleasant, or convoluted, or tragically Greek, wait until you get to the last third of the book.

Littell's ambition is to construct a character through whom the reader can witness the gradual making of a monster. In his first military posting in the Ukraine, his commanding officer asks Aue to "go have a look" at the courtyard of the Castle Lubart, where hundreds of corpses are rotting. The abominable stench makes Aue nauseous. "Your first time?" a fellow officer asks. "You'll get used to it." And indeed Aue gets used to it, even if the reader never does. As a genocide unspools before his eyes, Aue's response is not to question its occurrence but, rather, to question the methods of its execution.

For instance, when his superiors round up a thousand random Jews as retaliation for the killing of some German soldiers, Aue stays up at night, bothered by the fact that this was "very unfair; the Jews of goodwill would be punished, the ones who might have come to trust the word of the German Reich; as for the others, the cowards, the traitors, the Bolsheviks, they'd stay hidden and we wouldn't find them." Soon enough, he becomes a fervent defender of the Final Solution: In "wartime, in a context of occupation, and with our limited resources, it is impossible for us to carry out individual investigations. So we are forced to consider the risk-bearing groups as a whole, and to react globally." By the end of the book, even Adolf Hitler's nose starts to seem, to someone so obsessed with the purity and superiority of German blood, "clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic."

Unfortunately, Littell's execution does not match his ambition. As a character, Aue is neither plausible nor realistic. Like Forrest Gump, he conveniently manages to be wherever the most significant events of the war take place, at the time in which they take place, and to interact with all the relevant figures of Nazism -- Paul Blobel, Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself. The encounter with Hitler borders on the farcical. (I should mention that Littell can't resist inserting famous people into this book: Una studies psychology in Zurich with Carl Jung, a grandchild of the composer Schubert turns up as a soldier and so on.) Aue lurches from one job posting to another depending on the needs of the plot and engages in conversations whose sole purpose seems to be to provide historical detail, however fascinating or mundane it might be. Even the transformation of Aue from a constitutional law expert into a coldblooded executioner seems too linear to be believable.

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