Tuesday, 5 April 2011

the kindly ones (jonathan littell)

The books you don't know where to start with are either the ones about which there is nothing to say, or those where there is too much. And in their too-muchness, leave one floundering. The Kindly Ones exists within the latter category. Since starting it a surprising number of people have approached me to say that they've been told about this book. But I've met no-one who's actually read it.

It manages to pull off the feat of being both an easy read and not-an-easy read. It is easy to read because, in spite of its length, it tells its linear narrative with a fluent, conversational prose style. When Maximilien Aue, the book's narrator, occasionally breaks from his narrative, the recounting of his war, the second world war, as seen from his perspective, in order to pursue a diversion about the nature of linguistics with respect to the Caucusus, or the difference between the Jewish faith and the Nazi faith, this too is easy to follow. The narrator is in no way stupid, he is well-read and cultured, but his imagination knows its limits. It has to because, if he crosses those limits, follows up the time he perceived Hitler as a Rabbi during a speech, for example, it would mean the loss of his job, his livelihood and his life. Littell reveals the imaginative straightjacket of the totalitarian state and this, ironically, facilitates rather than hinders the book's narration.

Then again, it is not an easy read because - Well, because. Because of history. Or more specifically, the history that the book's protagonist, Aue, lives through. He is a senior officer in the SS. He travels the length and breath of the Nazi empire. From Paris to Stalingrad; Berlin to Kiev, Auschwitz to Antibes. He sees things and participates in actions which might be named genocide, or atrocities, or homicide, or evil or any other number of words we use to describe the things that we all know happened during that time. (Still happen?) And the reader sees and participates in these things with him.

This is the great conceit of the book. It is - in part thanks to its fluid prose style, in part because it takes its readers into a world they know much about but also know so little about, in part because it has a clear, historically documented over-arching narrative (The Nazis lose - ) - entertaining. Aue meets characters and we meet them with him, who are, for want of a better word, sympathetic. Even Aue is sympathetic. So we read on through the massacres and genocide and the evil. We are entertained by this story. The fate of the Jews and the gypsies and the mentally ill and all the soldiers who pass through the book might trouble us, but not to such an extent that we can do anything about it. Aue's readers are, it might be said, complicit in his narrative. His terrible narrative.

Which makes for a brilliant piece of novel-writing. I had reservations about the strand within the book, which comes to the fore in the final hundred or so pages, where the writer appears to want to consciously de-sympathise Aue. Who becomes rather more than a passive observer. In the penultimate section, Aue's embracing of a pathological, psychotic madness, it feels as though the author or the narrator has perhaps felt the need to inflict some kind of violence on the reader, to not let the reader get away with the comfortable reading experience so much of the book has been up to then. The Germanic order of Aue's mind gives way to a French delirium, with shades of Sade, Bataille, Genet. But the book and its writer have earned these moments, if they are deemed necessary. Perhaps it is just the exhaustion taking hold. The exhaustion of reader and writer; horror and war.

Just as I didn't know how to begin, I'm not sure how to end. There is much to say, as I have said, about this novel. More than I could begin to say. About the writer's ambitions and the innate critique of what it means to be human that the novel, with its curious title, would seem to present. What is the point of us lamely condemning things without either understanding these things or endeavouring to recognise how we might be guilty of similar complicity within our own way of life? The blurb within the book informs that Littell has worked for humanitarian agencies: in his re-imagining of the horrors of the Eastern front, there are often moments with echoes of our modern societal structures. As calculations are made about how much food a human can subsist on; what are the financial and regulatory costs of preserving or denying life; how these decisions are made within operating frameworks which allow the powerful not to view the weak as humans, but as statistics. There are echoes of Peter Singer; there are references to Kant and Hobbes; there is the acknowledgement that the Nazi infrastructure arose out of a socio-political-philosophical method of viewing the world which lived before Hitler and lives on after he and his Nazis fell.

And at the same time, in the words of Aue, a man without consonants, there are also moments of perverse beauty within what is, in the bravest, most transgressive sense of the thought, a perverse book. Such as the old man in the Caucusus, perhaps descended from angels, who denies the war's dominance by demanding his death, a death which has been foreseen, as are all deaths. Who orders Aue to dig a grave for him; to kill him; to commit the crime so that he might finally receive the death he has waited all his life to inherit.

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