Review: The kindly ones

A Holocaust blockbuster that has taken France by storm offers a mass of dark and dirty detail with few signs of restraint

By David Herman, March 5, 2009
Jonathan Littell: just under 1,000 pages of sex, violence  — and history

Jonathan Littell: just under 1,000 pages of sex, violence — and history

This huge Holocaust novel is likely to be the literary talking-point of the spring. Published in France in 2006, it won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and has already sold more than a million copies in Europe. Le Figaro called it “a monument of contemporary literature”.

It is not hard to see why Jonathan Littell’s book has been such a success. It is hugely ambitious. The fictionalised autobiography of an SS officer, Maximilien Aue, it tells the story of Aue’s adventures from the eastern front to the Fall of Berlin. Aue goes everywhere that matters. He sees massacres of Jews in the Soviet Union, is at Babi Yar and is badly wounded at Stalingrad. Later, he works for Himmler in Berlin, visits Auschwitz and Belzec, and escapes from the ruins of Berlin as the Soviet troops arrive. In the course of his travels, he meets all the most famous Nazis: Himmler and Eichmann, Heydrich, Hans Frank and even Hitler himself (in the bunker).

Littell has clearly immersed himself in the history of Nazism. He must have read shelf-loads of books, including many based on the most up-to-date research. His novel is crammed with erudition, on every subject from linguistics to Lermontov, from Ludendorff’s pan-Islamic policy to the symptoms of malnutrition.

Perhaps to make all the history and cultural references easier to digest, the book is full of sex and violence. Aue is bisexual and we are spared no details of his misogyny, homosexual relations and incestuous fantasies. There are scenes in Nazi brothels; fantasies of incest with his twin sister, Una; rape, including the rape of children; sodomy and much more. The violence is just as graphic. People are not just killed (Jews, Nazis and Soviets alike), their heads and bodies explode. The violence is always close-up, in full Dolby Sound.

There is also a thriller sub-plot, in case readers are flagging towards the end. Two German policemen chase Aue across war-torn Europe, accusing him of having brutally murdered his mother and stepfather in France, and there is the mystery of twins who were living with them and then disappear.

This blend of thriller, enormously detailed historical naturalism, pornography and violence is a heady mix — The White Hotel meets The Winds of War, or, in thematic terms, Sex and Nazism meets Big History. It seems to go down well in Europe.

There is much to admire, but also much to dislike. The Kindly Ones (originally written in French as Les Bienveillantes by the bilingual Littell), is a hard read. Almost 1,000 pages long, packed with facts and details in paragraphs that sometimes go on for pages, the prose is often heavy. There are many characters but few come alive. And, for all Littell’s diligence, the writing never reaches any appreciable heights.

Even the history is rarely illuminating. It has a touristic quality. Aue cannot just be on the eastern front; he has to be at Babi Yar and Stalingrad. And, of course, Auschwitz. If he meets Hitler, it has to be in the bunker. He is the Zelig of the SS.

Pornographic and violent, The Kindly Ones is saturated with kitsch. Naturally, Aue has to be a pervert. One whole chapter is given over to the most violently incestuous sexual fantasies.

Yes, this is a big, best-seller dealing with the most serious of subjects. But, don’t believe the hype. For all its smart ambitions, this is a nasty, shameful book.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011