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The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, translated by Charlotte Mandell

[My daughter's surgery went really well yesterday. You can read more on my Maya's World blog if you're interested.]

I decided to read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell after reading a couple of different blog postings concerning the controversy around the book. I probably wouldn't have bothered if I had read this review from The New York Times first.

Describing the book as weird doesn't even begin to explain how surreal the story becomes.

The first-person narrator, Dr. (as in, attorney with a doctorate) Max Aue, has, frankly, issues from long before the start of the war. Issues of a very personal nature that, honestly, detract from any understanding that might have come through in this historical novel about Germans who became officers in Hitler's SS.
[Are we to believe that all active supporters of the Nazi Regime and the campaign to eliminate so-called "enemies of the state" (Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, Communists, etc.) were themselves brutal monsters? Is this dehumanization at all helpful? I don't think so. A discussion of how ordinary people can support policicies and take actions so horrific, I think, would have had much more impact. What happens--fear, mob mentality, greed, reverence of the state (or religion), and such? I would rather think about why someone does something, how little decisions spiral into huge consequences, and so on as opposed to feeling at the end of the book that the main character was just a sociopath.]

This long book is truly only the story of happenings on the Eastern Front from the perspective of SS Obersturmfuhrer (I hope I have that rank correct, as I don't have my Kindle with me) Aue. There is a lot of detailed information; apparently, Littell did his research on the facts, figures, and movements of the period.

There's just something "off" to me in the descriptions like those of the mass killings of Jews and the band of children living in the forests behind the Russian lines near the end of the war. They seem gratuitous and unreal, and I've read enough books by Holocaust survivors to not just be suffering from surprise at the horror. Littell's descriptions just don't carry the same weight; they seem like Aue is describing a movie he has seen instead of actual situations he observed and, yes, participated in directly.

So, there's a lot of Aue traveling around, working through the politics of the Nazi system, spending time with his close friend and strong supporter Thomas, and having twisted, confusing hallucinations (dreams?).

By the rather dramatic, and bizarre, ending involving an ultimate kind of betrayal on Aue's part, I can't even summon the slightest bit of surprise about his actions. Sadistic? Masochistic? Criminally insane? Yes, probably all of the above, and in no way representative, I'm sure, of the psyche of the majority of actual SS officers.

Again, for the record, the original version of The Kindly Ones, published in French, won the Grand Prix du Roman (French Academy) and the Prix Goncourt awards. Again, maybe I'm just not advanced intellectually enough to appreciate the talents of the author.

My overall personal rating of this massive book (just short of 1000 pages) is a C-.


Dawn said…
You mention that the description of war and the Holocaust is not as...terrible, for lack of a better word, as it can be. Honestly, it could be. Take pictures of the Holocaust, for instance. They are so morbid, so frightening...and yet so fascinating. They are intriguing because most of us have never experienced that. I will always remember "March" by Geraldine Brooks for that--her descriptions of the some of the events during the Civil War are horrid, but utterly true.
I didn't explain my reaction to those scenes very well. I didn't feel drawn into them. What he was describing seemed detached and included for effect more than anything. I didn't feel at all frightened or horrified because the scenes didn't seem real. Gratuitous and violent, yes, but real, no.

[This is a very small scene, so shouldn't be a spoiler.] There's even a scene involving Dr. Aue and a four-year-old girl who has just seen her mother (and many others) killed in the forest. I'm reading, thinking, "I just don't see Maya [my daughter, who just turned five] or any of the other kids at her school reacting this way." When I'm reading something I've really been transported inside or something that's challenging me in some way, I'm not sitting there having those kinds of thoughts.

I just really regret wasting the time to read this very long book. And I was hoping for so much more going into the book.

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