Monday, September 5, 2011

Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones": Book Review

This thousand-page novel documents the increasingly unhinged perspective of sound and fury as told by a gay SS officer blackmailed into serving the Reich. This he does with admirable if oddly fervent loyalty.  Zelig- or Candide-like, he's propelled from France to Ukraine to Stalingrad to Berlin to Hungary to the Baltic and back to Berlin as the war implodes.

Translated from French smoothly by Charlotte Mandell, this award-winning novel baffled many reviewers for its moral ambiguity and Nazi minutiae, but for me, it proved a rewarding and insightful read. I liked the Caucasus exegesis of languages and how the Nazis tried to figure out who was Jewish "by race" and who by "culture" adopted in ways that linguistic analysis supposedly would betray. However, the scholarship invested overall in this very hefty novel may weary many long before its inevitable, fatalistic, collapse in Berlin 1945. It  lapses into dream states that I found less engrossing and sometimes tedious, and it does seem a book stuffed with three times the detail needed to show the author's familiarity with every grade of German military rank and endless discussions between the brass and the officers about strategy and tactics and who's titled what.

Unfortunately, this results in my ranking of three stars, as parts reach the heights ("Air"), while unrelenting military minutiae drags this down, It's difficult to expect even a ranking official would clutter his memoirs with such conversations and asides, unless this shows his altered state, but this does not compel you to turn pages, in a book nearly a thousand pages. The final, clunky even if logical by Aue's distorted perspective, scenes at the Berlin Zoo invite disbelief, after a novel that requires lots of suspension of belief.

However, there's redeeming value. A lot of critics denounced its ethical shortcomings, but Max Aue (a name redolent of some symbol) succeeded in stating very early on his rationale. If the State one must serve is made up of ordinary folks, some will find themselves on the wrong side of history, then as now, not by a chosen career path or personal preference, but by the pressures of bureaucracy and the exigencies of the moment that pressure people into acting. Not all victims are good and not all executioners are evil, Aue reasons.

The State, both sides agree as do we, must exist, must call its male citizens to take lives in its name and its female ones to serve its demands. Free will vanishes if a soldier is assigned to a concentration camp or mobile killing battalion: "chance alone makes him a killer rather than a hero, or a dead man." (592) We give up the right not to kill and our own right to life, if male, he warns, to do our wartime duty to our masters.

"The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you're not convinced of this, don't bother to read any further. You'll understand nothing and you'll get angry, with little profit for you or for me." (21) This passage needs to be remembered by anyone trying to make some sense out of what can be, in Aue's warped sense, a testimony sometimes drifting into narrated nonsense after he's wounded in the brain at Stalingrad's siege. "I was sinking into the mud while searching for light."

Earlier in the Soviet invasion, Aue realizes that a commitment to total war means to "resist the temptation to be human." National Socialism is explained as trying to glean the will of the "volk," by placing informants and spies among the people, as if to guide the Fuehrer towards fulfilling the German destiny. Aue despite his attempts to humanize the treatment of slave laborers and make the Jewish captives' situation slightly more endurable if before their doom nonetheless understands that his survival depends on obedience, "on a one-way path of no return, which everyone had to follow until the end." (141)

The grind of war does reveal itself and over hundreds of pages, the accumulation will either drive you away or suck you in, as is Littell's intent. Stalingrad's collapse gains vivid rendition. A Russian soldier is shot by a sniper: "The kid's shouts were boring into my brain, a trowel burrowing in thick, sticky mud, full of worms and messy life. I wondered would I too beg for my mother, when the time came?" (368-9)

Aue's complicated relationship with his sister, and the mother who abandoned them, makes for awkward scenes. Littell piles on a lot of heated material that may put off sensitive readers, and while for me this worked impressively in the "Air" section as the depiction of unsatisfied male desire, some readers appeared upset by Littell's inclusion of the seamier sides of sex, although to me this appeared precisely what Aue would seek out.

Metaphorically, among the heaps of research shoveled into this narrative, Littell shows his literary side. Dr. Aue tries at Stalingrad to read a dead soldier's entrails "to find traces of my past or signs of my future in them," as it all appears to become "an agonizing farce." (379) Recuperating from his injury, "Reason raised its skirt for me, revealing that there was nothing underneath." (436) "I was scraping my skin on the world as on broken glass; I kept deliberately swallowing fishhooks, then being surprised when I tore the guts out of my mouth." (511-2)

In the Invalides esplanade in occupied Paris, Aue sees workers plowing up its lawns to plant vegetables; he passes there a Czech-made tank with a swastika, near where "indifferent children were playing with a ball." (500) In a concentration camp, he finds the organization a "reductio ad absurdum" for everyday life, infected with "its absurd violence, its meticulous hierarchy," its rigidity and orders and submission. (622)

The weight of this book pushes the momentum downhill as the war constricts the freedom-as-slavery which Aue fought for to expand on behalf of the Reich. Mines worked by slaves, the death camps, the retreat as the Soviets pursue, the Baltic remnant of the Nazis and German civilians, and the fall of Berlin all gain intensity. The best scene is when a surreal children's army of German fanatics that surrounds Aue and his comrades as they hide from the surrounding Russians.

Before this, Aue flees to his old retreat, alone, to find his sister. He reflects amidst a frenzied, fevered chapter full of despair, lust, and anguish: "I hadn't yet understood the specific weight of bodies, and what the commerce of love involves, destines and condemns us to." (903) This allows the reader to see deeper into Aue's soul, such as it is, and works well. He wants to "blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody." (908)

What succeeds less is the Keystone Kops-meet-Inspector Javert pursuit which descends into unbelievable devotion by a duo who hunt Aue down as Berlin crumbles. Littell appears to want us to ironically juxtapose the upholding of one law by the Reich's representatives while millions of others are broken, but this caricatured conceit never convinced me of its necessity, and this whole subplot remained tiresome. Even in a novel where the everyday duty of destruction takes over, the fictional duty of controlling a plot and streamlining its telling to keep to believable events in a necessary assertion of authorial command appeared to desert its post. (Posted 8-23-11 to Amazon US after eighty-five reviewers preceded me.)

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