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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Justifying genocide

By Norman Lebrecht / February 23, 2009

When a novel arrives with a Prix Goncourt, a million sales and an encomium from the constitutionally understated Anita Brookner that it ‘outclasses all other fictions’, all the new reader can do is sit back in awe at a triumph of marketing and timeliness.

Any 900-page transcontinental novel of conquest and occupation was bound to be compared to War and Peace, and sure enough - thank you, New York Times – it was. Any fiction with a Holocaust theme was bound to get shown to survivor organisations and duly condemned. That’s how the marketing is done these days, the old one-two.

The timeliness is more troubling. The Kindly Ones, by an American author but written in French for a Parisian publisher, is coming out in English in a season where three films are helpfully distorting history in its favour, a mini-wave of Hollywood adjustments to verified truth.

In Valkyrie, Tom Cruise hams it up for the good Germans who wanted to kill Hitler, scoffing at historians ‘who hadn’t read all the things I did’. In Defiance, Daniel Craig infers that millions of Jews could have resisted annihilation if only they had run to the woods and grabbed a machine gun.

Most pernicious of all, in The Reader a persuasive Kate Winslet conveys in her curvaceous nudity and expressionless enunciation the ugly falsehood that concentration camp murderers were ordinary people like you and me, only prettier.

Onto this well-prepared landing strip of public opinion thuds The Kindly Ones, with a title taken from the Greek furies in the Oresteia and chapter headings modelled on a J S Bach suite – Toccata, Allemande, Courante, and so on. Unlike other war novels, it comes furnished with classical references. The implication is that it must not only be a good book, but one that is educationally good for you.

The Kindly Ones tells the story of the Holocaust from the other side – the perpetrators – from the killing pits to the Führer bunker. Max Aue, the narrator, is an SS intelligence man with a French mother who finds himself massacring Jews with the Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine, meandering through the Stalingrad tunnels, promoted to Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff, ordered to make Auschwitz more cost efficient and finally winding up with Hitler in the bunker at the end of days.

This may be rather too much plot and coincidence for one man’s war but Littell needs all the deus ex machina he can muster to justify an authorial stance of moral neutrality. ‘Like most people I never asked to become a murderer,’ declares Aue early on, setting the tone for a put-upon character who takes the course of ‘duty’ as the easy way out.

Fatherless from boyhood and separated from his twin sister, with whom he enjoyed narcissistic incest, Aue attaches himself to protectors in the SS and the Nazi party, following them unblinkingly into the genocidal morass. He feels a need to compensate for his French ancestry, his sense of half-belonging. At the same time, he preens himself with aesthetic superiority over the plodding Germans. His cultural recreations consist of anonymous sex with working-class men and listening to piano music. He finds a 12 year-old boy, Yakov, to play Bach and Mozart for him in the murder zone. When the boy is injured, he is executed without compunction.

Aue is one of life’s losers. He blames the murders he commits and the discomforts he endures on past deprivations, the greatest of which are the circumstances that prevent him from continuing to have sex with his sister. The implication is that he has no moral compass, but that is a red herring. He knows that killing men, women and children is wrong, but he carries on regardless, distinguishing between those who kill dispassionately – the kindly ones, perhaps? - and others who do it sadistically and for peculiar personal gratification.

His insider status in the Nazi echelons is underlined with intimate portraits of such dreary monsters as Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Heydrich, Hoess, Speer, Arthur Nebe and Mengele, the details derived wholesale from the historical record and adding little or nothing by way of insight and edification.

The plot engine is history itself. Every reader knows that what began in 1939 will end in April 1945. We are told at the outset that the narrator survives the fall of Berlin to merge into the provincial French bourgeoisie, making a modest fortune in lace manufacture. To this extent, the novel is a metanym for post-War France which only in the past week accepted judicially that it bears ‘moral and legal responsibility’ for the deportation of 76,000 Jews, most to their deaths, some of them members of my family. The Kindly Ones allows the French to feel just that little bit less guilty, which may help account for its first appearance and phenomenal sales in French.

Beyond that objective it is not easy to detect the appeal of this large and relentlessly unpleasant book. Jonathan Littell, New York born and of Jewish origin, betrays symptoms of self-hatred. In a colloquy of willing executioners towards the end of the war, one of the officers reports signs of Jewish resistance. The Jews, he says, ‘are beginning to learn the lesson, in Warsaw, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bialystok, it’s the Jews who are becoming warriors again, who are becoming cruel, who are becoming killers. I find that very beautiful. We’ve made them into an enemy worthy of us.’

This is not the language of late Nazism but of the 21st century resurgence of anti-semitic agitation which, from the Cairo Kasbah to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, propounds the daily libel that the Jews in Israel are doing unto the Palestinians what the Germans did unto them. Littell has given voice to similar views in a conversation last year with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and reflects them insidiously in his ‘fiction’.

I place the noun in inverted commas since I have come regard The Kindly Ones on second reading as a novel of no imagination, a work devoid of character and ingenuity, fundamentally without plot, without subtlety or irony or any mitigating cause. Its events are plundered from published memoirs and decorated with no literary skill that could be mistaken for originality. It neither illuminates the human condition nor elevates the mind.

The Kindly Ones reads like a strategy paper for excusing genocide. Its chief mercy is that it leaves no aftertaste, no residual memory to tease or haunt the reader on sleepless nights. It is a bad novel with a fake objectivity that travesties classical civilisation, the origin of its title and stucture. Tiresome, pitiless and prurient, it is a perverse and dirty book.

Jonathan Littell: The Kindly Ones (Chatto & Windus £20)

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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