, June 23, 2012
(view all comments by David Chachere)
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” reads the inscription Dante discovers over the gates of Hell. Good advice for all those who pick up Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, weighing in at 976 pages in its English translation. But if you have the stomach to traverse this Brughellian landscape, you will discover both a meticulously researched panorama of the Nazi state and a wonderfully realized portrait one of its loyal devils.
SS officer Maximilien Aue is a monster among monsters, one who, like a demonic Virgil, leads us through concentric circles of horror, from Babi Yar, to the battle of Stalingrad, through the gates of Auschwitz (with its own famous inscription above its gates) and even to the bunker of Lucifer himself in the final days before the fall.
“The Kindly Ones” is a reference to the Furies, the spirits who, in Greek drama, pursued murderers such as Oedipus and Orestes. The allusions abound. Near the climax of the book, with the police hot on his trail, Max encounters a blind man aimlessly wandering the underworld of the Berlin U-Bahn. But ultimately, comparisons with moralizing fiction such as Dante or the Greek tragedies will fail, despite shared central elements such as incest and matricide. The most glaring difference is that, unlike tragic figures of yore, it seems that Max, perhaps on a legal technicality, has eluded the vengeance of the gods. In fact, he recounts his tale from the cozy redoubt of an anonymous bourgeois life.
And if fate fails to punish Max, so do the detectives investigating the murder of his mother, and the judges of Nuremberg, and the Red Army itself, the ultimate scourge of the Third Reich. Even the sense of his own guilt, which often stands in for the Furies in the Romantic imagination, fails to intervene. Except for the novel's last perplexing sentence, Max seems to slip unnoticed past the avenging angels in all their forms. He participates in countless murders (not all of them job-related) and goes on to live a quiet life; not happy, but by no means riddled with guilt. If this were a moral tale, it's principal lesson would be: the morality we'd like to believe in has left the building.
So what is this book really about? Two of its qualities shine brightest. First is Littell's astonishingly rigorous and creative research. We are treated (sometimes subjected) to page after page of esoteric detail on the inner workings of Nazism. Max's lawyerly talents are put to use exploring everything from Eastern European ethnolinguistics, to the economics of slave labor, to the homosexual underpinnings of National Socialism. This occasionally slips into pedantry. The appendixes, defining the mind-numbing plethora of Fascist organizations and military ranks, pile minutiae upon minutiae. Also, some minor characters seem circumscribed more by their rank and bureaucratic function than by their human qualities. But at its core, this is a novel of ideas, albethey perverse ones.
The second reason to read this book is for the irresistibly fascinating car crash that is Maximillian Aue. A perfect gentleman and a sociopath in one expansively rendered package. And you'd better leave your preconceptions at the bank of the river Styx, because while some minor characters seem flat, Max's motivations and musings are both fantastic and believable despite their contradictions. If he is a cog in the machine, what a peculiar cog he is, one who, despite his loyalty to the cause, would be hastily hung from a lamppost if his secrets were known. Beneath his meticulously laundered uniform, Max is as strange and fully realized a character as can be found in modern fiction, the kind of character we literary voyeurs crave.
So, if you believe that in this world justice prevails, or that, at least in fiction, it should, you will find this book an unforgivable insult. However, if you find that questions about the nature of crime, genocide, and of evil itself lead to even more complex and confounding answers, this book will both edify and perversely delight you.