It is very difficult to write about this much-reviewed book, The Kindly Ones, which won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Perhaps my difficulty arises because as I attempt to write it, I keep finding myself moving too rapidly into superlatives while also conscious that these need almost to be qualified with mental health warnings, such is the impact of this massive work on the unsuspecting reader.
Indeed, if you read The Kindly Ones, you are going to spend a couple of weeks inside the head of one of the most unpleasant fictional creations of all time and also join him in planning and observing the worst war crimes in history. Frankly, despite its undoubted status us a masterpiece, The Kindly Ones can be a rather oppressive read and to put it down for a while is like coming up for air from a very murky pool. Having said that, if you want to read an insider’s view (although fictional) on these events, then this is perhaps the best book on the topic that you’re ever going to read.
If you decide to travel with Maximillian Aue through these 970 pages, you will be in the company of a senior SS officer, totally imbued with Nazi philosophy and convinced of his mission to further the aims of his Fuhrer in every possible way. Max Aue is a monster, but also an immensely cultured monster. He is a Greek scholar and a student of Plato, and sees no dichotomy in aligning Nazi philosophy with the highest values of the ancients.
The book is a first-person account, in which Max Aue addresses the reader throughout, and his opening sentence, “O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened” tells his readers from the start that in his view he is no different to anyone else. He tries to carry his readers along with him, taking as a “given” in his audience what would in fact be evidence of the worst possible corruption. He tries to show us that what he does is inevitable if the world is to be put to rights. The murders and massacres are a correction to a world order which has been allowed to become askew. The Nazis are just carrying out a necessary adjustment, a realignment which will put things back on course.
As you read this book, you will walk with Dr Max Aue as he leads an “Aktion” in the Ukraine in which 50,000 people will be massacred (the infamous Babi Yar massacre). You will hear his inner thoughts as thousands upon thousands of innocent Jewish families are transported to concentration camps in the most vile conditions possible. You will read of his efforts in setting up the final death marches as the camps were emptied for fear that the advancing Russian armies would discover the full extent of the appalling atrocities that were carried out in them.
And this is just a fraction of Max Aue’s deeds during the war. I could write of the magnificent accounts of the German defeat at Stalingrad, or the flight back to Berlin as the Russians advance in a final rout of rape and mass killings. Apart from these “external events”, we also have to deal with Max himself, who is not an easy character, being in his own right a murderer and a man deeply damaged in his sexuality.
This is not an easy read, and its sheer scale increases its impact, and left me feeling that this is not a book to be trifled with. Indeed, having written the above summary, I now find myself with that list of superlatives which I have been trying to avoid: magnificent, a tour de force, a novel of immense significance, a new War and Peace, a writer of equivalent stature to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann. The book is audacious: we have read many accounts of the victims of the Nazi regime. Now we hear the viewpoint of a totally committed officer, committed to the will of Adolf Hitler and forwarding his goals with determination and utter ruthlessness.
Jonathan Littell, an American, wrote the book in French, and it has been translated into English by Charlotte Mandell who has written about her experiences in translating this work here. She writes,
And yes, Max Aue was primarily an administrator, a trouble-shooter, sent to review existing arrangement and suggest ways of making them better. We read not of the sufferings of the people being shot, but the effects on the soldiers who do the shooting, and how these can be mitigated by using different firing techniques. Max Aue deals with the internal politics of the Nazi regime, where the discussion of whether to feed or clothe prisoners in the camps depends solely on their usefulness in the factories. If you were weak you died; if you had some residual strength you may be given some rags to wrap around your feet to save you from frost-bite as you stood for long hours awaiting your name to be called.
One can only admire Jonathan Littell for his ability to get inside the head of a senior Nazi officer and I can think of nothing in literature which equals the conviction of this characterisation. It is an almost hideous achievement, but also totally successful in getting inside the mind of someone who’s soul has been corrupted beyond the possibility of redemption.
I can find no better way to finish this review than to go back to Charlotte Mandell’s essay and echo her words,
“This is the Evil Nazi, and we are in him for a thousand pages, and have to make our own way out. No consolations, no forgivenesses”.