The Kindly Ones
By Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
(Harper, 984 pp., $29.99)
The Kindly Ones has all the trappings of a Very Important Novel. It is a doorstop: 975 pages (plus appendices) in its English translation, heroically accomplished by Charlotte Mandell. Its cover heralds it as an "international best-seller" (although this cynical American suspects that only in Europe can a book of such bulk and pretension sell nearly a million copies). Its author, Jonathan Littell, has a cool cosmopolitan c.v.: born in America, he wrote the novel in French, his second language, and currently lives in Barcelona. It bears a heavy thematic framework, mainly allusions to the ancient Greeks: "the kindly ones" are the Eumenides, better known as the Furies. And did I mention that it is narrated by a Nazi?
But The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject, which is nothing less than the most perplexing question of modernity. How could human beings undertake--and successfully carry out--an unprecedented systematic program of mass extermination against other human beings? Over the course of the sixty-four years since the end of World War II, this question has been examined energetically, if not exhaustively, by historians, philosophers, novelists, poets, psychologists, and politicians. In her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt set the terms of the debate by arguing that the majority of the Nazis were not--as psychologists had previously believed--monsters in some form: sadists, psychopaths, perverts, or homicidal maniacs. They were, the overwhelming majority of them, unremarkable men, "small cogs" in a killing machine, who showed little initiative of their own but were prepared to obey orders unquestioningly and then go to dinner.
The question of the psychological and even spiritual identity of the perpetrators is not an academic one. It had important implications in the debate that played out for decades in courtrooms across Europe as prosecutors attempted to bring the Nazis to justice. From the start, it was obvious that not all of those who participated in the "Final Solution" could stand trial: there were too many of them. At the same time, the deaths of millions of Europe's citizens could not go unpunished. Someone had to be held responsible. So which Nazis were the most guilty--and what exactly were they guilty of? In the years immediately following the war, many of the highest-ranking Nazi satraps--among them Goring, Kaltenbrunner, Bormann--were convicted of war crimes, at Nuremberg and elsewhere, and sentenced to death. But it was much less clear what should be done with the multitude of mid-level functionaries, the "small cogs." They were in no way architects of the genocide, but the system could not have functioned without them. How evil, precisely, were they?
The narrator of The Kindly Ones is a cog. He is Maximilien Aue, a Nazi functionary, who joins the Nazi party early on as an act of rebellion against his French mother and stepfather and eventually rises to the rank of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer, or lieutenant colonel. Along the way he serves with the Einsatzgruppen in Ukraine, on the eastern front in the Battle of Stalingrad, and finally in an office job in Berlin as the head of the Arbeitseinsatz, the office that manages the "work force"--the able-bodied Jews and other prisoners culled from the mass deportations from all over Europe. During the fall of Berlin, he tells us at the novel's start, he escaped into France with false papers; and now, writing his memoirs in his old age, he still lives peacefully there, working in a lace-making factory.
The deep discomfort of the book begins with its first lines, as Aue, in an opening section that reads as a sort of apologia without apology ("I do not regret anything"), insists that he is an ordinary man. "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!" (This kind of pointless redundancy goes a long way toward explaining the book's bulk. Aue is a garrulous cog.) He does not mean this to exonerate himself: he understands the word "ordinary" in an Arendtian sense. "The ordinary men that make up the State--especially in unstable times--now there's the real danger," he says. "The real danger for mankind is me, is you." Aue does not plead ignorance of the circumstances--he was fully informed about the "Jewish question," and visited Auschwitz more than once when the exterminations were taking place--or blind obeisance to authority. He committed his crimes, he says, for ideological reasons, and therefore in good faith: "What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been."
So what exactly did he do? Well, after war breaks out in Poland, Aue, at the encouragement of his friend Thomas, signs up to work with the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile death squads, in Ukraine. (Back then, he thought the "work" would consist of "the security of the troops in the rear, intelligence, things like that.... What man of sane mind could ever have imagined that they'd pick jurists to assassinate people without a trial?") In those early days, the German army had not yet reached the pinnacle of efficiency that would later characterize its machinery of slaughter. Aue initially takes a matter-of-fact attitude toward the massacres: "Certainly there would be mistakes; certainly there would be innocent victims; but that, alas, was war; when you bomb a city, civilians die also." But he is soon appalled by the undisciplined violence. In Lemberg (Lviv), a priest begs him to keep locals from killing Jews in the courtyard of his church. He meets another officer who is supposed to serve as an expert on "Ukrainian national questions," but is actually a professor of theology. The first coordinated Aktion against Jews that he witnesses has a gruesome comedy. Once they get the Jews to the forest, there is nowhere to dig a trench, because the forest is already full of mass graves.
At his first sight of mass murder--a thousand corpses piled up in the courtyard of an old castle--Aue has a natural human reaction: he is appalled. "I wanted to close my eyes, or put my hand over my eyes," he recalls, "and at the same time I wanted to look, to look as much as I could, and by looking, try to understand, this incomprehensible thing, there, in front of me, this void for human thought." But his desire to understand does not go so far as empathy, and anyway it quickly disappears. In one of the scenes of mass execution, Aue pauses to wonder what the Ukrainians drafted to serve as shooters must be thinking, "wearing a strange uniform and killing people who had done nothing to them." But he has not a speck of sympathy for the doomed Jews, not a single question about what the victims might have thought or felt. The closest Aue comes is when he finds a little girl who had somehow escaped the trench wandering nearby. "Where is mama?" he asks her in Ukrainian. She points to the trench. He takes her by the hand and leads her to a Waffen-SS, with the parting words: "Be gentle with her."
The novel is careful to show that Aue, unlike some of his comrades in the SS, is no raging anti-Semite. (Littell seems to subscribe to the much-debatable theory that the anti-Semites among the SS were the exceptions.) Aue bears no personal animus against the Jews; he does what he does because he believes in the Nazi party and the German nation. In fact, he is enough of an independent thinker to realize that Hitler's Jewish obsession may distract Germany from realizing its goals. "The murder of the Jews doesn't serve any real purpose," he complains to Thomas one night in Ukraine. "It has no economic or political usefulness, it has no finality of a practical order.... It's a waste, pure loss. " A consummate SS-man, Aue regards "waste" as the worst sin.
Dispatched to the Caucasus to resolve whether a tiny ancient sect known as the Bergjuden, or Mountain Jews, are "racially" Jewish or not, Aue applies himself strenuously and objectively to researching the question, interviewing the Jews themselves and various experts. In this he starkly contrasts with a specialist sent to work with him, a female Nazi who offends him with her aggressive ideology and crude language. When the Jewish villagers shower them with gifts and hospitality, she scoffs at their attempts to buy her off: "That's really a Jewish tactic." In comparison, he seems like some sort of idealist.
Aue's idealism eventually works to his disadvantage, by blinding him to the obvious goal of the deportations and the concentration camps. Despite everything he knows, he simply cannot believe that their true purpose is to exterminate all the Jews--not when Germany is so desperately in need of a work force. And there are others who share his naivete. "I train specialists, they take them away from me and they disappear God knows where," a supervisor in Lublin tells him. "I ask for better food for the workers; they tell me there is no extra food for Jews. I ask them at least to stop beating them all the time; they give me to understand that I shouldn't interfere in what isn't my business. How is anyone supposed to work properly in such conditions?" But for the most part Aue's work at the Arbeitseinsatz forces him to butt heads with other bureaucrats in his helplessly un-ideological insistence on better treatment for the prisoners.
At Auschwitz, Aue receives a personal tour of the camp from Rudolf Hoss, and witnesses the arrival of a transport of French Jews. The scene is familiar, though the perspective is not:
The train was brought up and the doors of the cattle cars were
opened. I expected a chaotic outburst: despite the shouts and
the barking of the dogs, things happened in a relatively orderly
way. The newcomers, obviously disoriented and exhausted,
poured out of the cars in the midst of an abominable stink of
excrement; the Haftlinge of the work Kommando,
shouting in a mixture of Polish, Yiddish, and German, made them
abandon their luggage and line up in rows.... A woman, seeing me,
asked me, in bad German, pointing to her child: "Herr Offizier! Can
we stay together?"--"Don't worry, Madame," I replied politely in
French, "you won't be separated."
Of the one thousand Jews in the transport, 369 men and 191 women are "kept"--55 percent. "With the convoys from the West, we get good averages," the doctor in charge tells him. "But the Polish convoys are a disaster. It never goes beyond twenty-five percent, and sometimes, aside from two or three percent, there's really nothing to keep.... Their condition on arrival is deplorable." Later Aue interviews chief physician Eduard Wirths, another "idealist" for whom the idea of selection is "odious ... but if it has to be done, then it might as well be done by doctors." As a matter of principle, he makes all the camp doctors take a turn at the ramp: "'I myself go there too, even if I find it horrifying. I have to set an example.' He looked a little lost as he said that."
The problem with the labor force is particularly obvious at the factory run by I.G. Farben on the camp's grounds, known as Buna. An engineer named Schenke reports to Aue that the construction of the factory is going slowly because the inmates working on it are in such poor shape; the company's contract allows them to send the inmates back and demand new ones, but the replacements are never any better. "What happens to the ones you send back?" Aue asks him. Schenke responds: "I have no idea. That's not my business. I guess they fix them up in the hospital. Don't you know?" But Aue cannot help but notice how brutally the prisoners are treated:
In the midst of the immense, muddy construction site that was to
become the factory, columns of scrawny Haftlinge in
rags carried at a run, under the shouts and cudgel blows of the
kapos, beams or bags of cement far too heavy for them. If a worker,
in his big wooden clogs, stumbled and let his load fall, or collapsed
himself, the blows redoubled, and blood, fresh and red, gushed onto
the oily mud. Some never got up again. The din was infernal, every-
one was yelling, the SS noncoms, the kapos; the beaten inmates
screamed pitifully. Schenke guided me through the Gehenna without
paying the slightest attention to it. Here and there, he paused and
conversed with other engineers in well-pressed suits, holding yellow
folding rulers and little fake-leather notebooks in which they jotted
down figures. They commented on the progress of the construction
of a wall, then one of them muttered a few words to a Rottenfuhrer,
who began to yell and viciously hit the kapo with his boot or rifle butt;
the kapo, in turn, dove into the mass of inmates, distributing savage
blows with full force, bellowing; and then the Haftlinge attempted
a surge of activity, which died down on its own, since they could
scarcely stand up. This system seemed to me extremely inefficient,
and I said as much to Schenke; he shrugged his shoulders and looked
around him as if he were seeing the scene for the first time: "In any
case they don't understand anything but blows. What else can you
do with such a workforce?"
When Aue suggests that they could obtain better output by treating the prisoners more humanely, Schenke insists that the camp, not the company, is responsible for their upkeep: "All that is specified in our contract." These bureaucratic barriers allow I.G. Farben essentially to exculpate itself. And yet Littell demonstrates (though we knew this already) that an unquantifiable amount of moral blindness is required to allow them to turn their heads. Behind Schenke, Aue notices, "knocked down by a cudgel, an inmate was dying; his bloody head was buried in the thick mud; only the mechanical trembling of his legs showed that he was still alive. Schenke, as we left, stepped over him without looking at him. He was still thinking about my words with irritation: 'We can't have a sentimental attitude, Herr Sturmbahnfuhrer. We are at war. Production counts above all else.'--'I'm not saying otherwise. My objective is just to suggest ways to increase production.'" Extremely inefficient, indeed.
The accomplishment of Littell's book is its convincing depiction of the Nazi state as a gigantic machine, which sometimes worked well and sometimes poorly, but which was dependent at every stage on hundreds of thousands of people, from janitors to high-ranking functionaries, to keep it operational. Aue does not even meet Hitler until page 959, and then only for a brief (possibly hallucinated) scene. The Fuhrer's presence is not required: set in motion by his deputies and maintained by layer upon layer of cogs, the machine functions on its own. Littell shows this vividly, though his take is hardly original. (Arendt wrote that "if this meant no more than giving unquestioning obedience to the Fuhrer's orders, then they had all been small cogs--even Himmler, we are told by his masseur, Felix Kersten, had not greeted the Final Solution with great enthusiasm." )
The cogs, Littell also makes clear, are not just the Nazis and the corporations that collaborated with them, but also the bystanders. It was impossible for the average German not to have had some idea of what was being done in his name. "It's remarkable how well informed people are of the so-called secrets--the euthanasia program, the destruction of the Jews, the camps in Poland, the gas, everything," Thomas tells Aue after his return to Berlin. "You, in Russia, had never heard of the KLs [concentration camps] in Lublin or Silesia, but the lowliest tramcar driver in Berlin or Dusseldorf knows they're burning prisoners there." On his tour of the Polish concentration camps, Aue is surprised to see a little camp in southeastern Poland set up not in an uninhabited area, as he had believed all the camps were, but "right next to a little town swarming with German settlers and their families; the main railroad linking Galicia to the rest of the GG [Generalgouvernement], on which civilians and soldiers traveled daily, passed right by the barbed wire, through the horrible smell and the smoke: and all these people, trading, traveling, scurrying in one direction or another, chatted, argued, wrote letters, spread rumors, told jokes." On his last visit to Auschwitz, he travels in a regular train filled with civilians and functionaries. "Well before the station, to the left of the train, you could see a line of points of white light, the barbed-wire spotlights perched on whitewashed poles, and behind that line, more darkness, an abyss giving off that abominable stench of burned flesh, which wafted through the car. The passengers ... crowded around the windows, often with their wives. Comments flew: 'It's burning nicely,' a civilian said to his wife."
So, are the cogs guilty? Should they be held responsible for the atrocities committed on their behalf? On this question--a question absolutely essential to the way we understand Nazi guilt and retribution, and to our understanding of genocide more generally--Littell's book is maddeningly incoherent. From the outset, Aue makes it clear that he believes the cogs should be held responsible: he does not identify gradations of guilt. "Who is guilty? Everyone, or no one?" he asks. "Why should the worker assigned to the gas chamber be guiltier than the worker assigned to the boilers, the garden, the vehicles?" All are equally guilty. But such logic fails to recognize that some roles are essential (the person who turns on the gas), while others are not (the person who weeds the garden). And why is the architect of the program absent from the list?
In interviews Littell has pushed this point further, explaining that for him, as for Aue, it is the deed that matters, not the intent--always so fuzzy--behind it:
The influence of Greek thought on the book extends far beyond its
Aeschylean structure. I like the Greek method of thinking about morality,
which is much more relevant than the Judeo-Christian approach with
regard to this type of phenomenon [the crimes of the Nazis]. In the
Judeo-Christian tradition, we are at fault, in sin, caught between sinful
intentions and sinful actions. The Greek attitude is much more straight-
forward. I mention this in the book: when Oedipus kills Laios, he does
not know that Laios is his father, but the gods don't give a damn; he
killed his father. He fucks Jocasta, not knowing that she is his mother,
but that changes nothing--he is guilty, basta. Intention does not come
into play. We approached the postwar trials in this way, and it is the
only way to proceed. So-and-so commited such an act, irrespective of
the reasons that led him to do so. Whether he did it in good faith, in
bad faith, whether he did it for money or because he believed in its
cause, that's his problem: he commited the act, and he will be judged
and condemned. That's all. Then, there are people who are executed,
others who are imprisoned, some who are freed; some are never even
arrested in the first place. It simply isn't fair; but that's the way it is.
Never mind that in the Jewish ethical tradition actions certainly can suffice to establish culpability--though "it simply isn't fair; but that's the way it is" is not its philosophical conclusion. Indeed, the question of intent did create confusion during some of the postwar trials. As Rebecca Wittmann describes in her excellent book Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial, starting in 1963, as the statute of limitations for murder was starting to run out, twenty of the "order-followers" from Auschwitz--including administrators, dentists, barracks commanders, medical orderlies, a doctor, a pharmacist, and a "disinfector"--were tried in Frankfurt. It was the intention of the West German attorney general Fritz Bauer to put the entire "Auschwitz complex" on trial. But the law prohibited retroactive legislation, which meant that the defendants could not be charged with crimes against humanity, like the Nazis at Nuremberg. Instead the prosecutors were stuck with a definition of murder dating from 1871, which required that they prove the individual motivation and initiative of each perpetrator in order to convict him of murder.
This definition, not surprisingly, worked to hinder the prosecution of the cogs. If the perpetrator of murder was the person who willed or intended the crime rather than the person who pulled the trigger, then the murder of millions in the gas chambers had to call for a lighter sentence than the murder of a single person performed under one's own initiative. In a supreme irony, the prosecutors thus implicitly legitimated the perpetrators' worldview, the Nazi bureaucratization of evil, with the witnesses sometimes reinforcing the "innocence" of "those who did not act brutally or on personal initiative" and "describing those who murdered reluctantly as, relatively speaking, 'decent men' (anstandige Manner)," Wittmann writes. "As a result, only the most grotesque and shocking of crimes were severely punished, while mass murder conducted through the machinery of genocide, the gas chambers and the crematoriums, receded into the background." Though Littell claims to believe the opposite, this is the system that his book finally endorses.
If Littell's novel were content merely to draw an exhaustive, moderately familiar, sometimes factually incorrect, but occasionally illuminating picture of the Nazi apparatus, it would be inconsequential. But in its attempt to impose its version of an ancient Greek framework on this modern system of destruction, it crosses the line from amorality to something worse.
It is erroneous (does this really need to be said?) to compare the crimes of Oedipus with the crimes of the Nazis. Yes, there are surface similarities: Oedipus did not know that he was killing his father, just as some of the Nazis may not have been aware of the consequences of their actions. But the decisive difference is that the story of Oedipus is a story of fate, a tragic tale of cosmic determinism. The story instructs that we cannot escape destiny. If we commit a crime, even unawares, it still counts as a crime, and we will still be punished for it. That is how the gods will it. If the gods have foreordained that we kill our father and marry our mother, there is no escaping our lot, not even by the wiliest mortal stratagems. In this universe, human choice is not moral choice, because choice is not freely made. We weep for the protagonists not least because we recognize that they are, in all their grandeur, trapped.
But the crimes of the Nazis were not foreordained. Hitler was not a god; and to the best of anybody's knowledge, no God or gods decreed that the Jews should be exterminated. The Nazis who carried out the final solution, from the gardener to the Reichsmarschall, did so of their own free will. Yes, we know that people were coerced to join the Nazi party; and that they joined the SS and the Wehrmacht for all kinds of reasons; and that they feared harm to themselves or to their families if they took steps to aid the Jews. But finally they were not slaves. They were able to exercise their free will. They chose to give in and go along. (The surrender of freedom is also an act of freedom.) We know this because some Nazis did choose to defy their orders and not commit certain crimes, and sometimes (Littell shows this too) had nothing to fear from making such a choice.
The novel's Greek conceit goes even further. For Aue's character has another dimension. On the surface, as we have seen, he leads a relatively normal life as a Nazi functionary--perhaps an exceptionally cool one, but nonetheless an anstandiger Mann. But at the same time he is, quite literally, a character out of a Greek tragedy. He is sexually obsessed with his twin sister, from whom he was separated as a teenager when his mother and stepfather caught them in a sexual act. As a result, he has for years nursed a grudge against them that erupts when, visiting them at home in Antibes while on leave, he apparently slips into a fugue state and murders them both. The murder is not described in the text--Aue says he fell asleep and awoke to find the bodies--but based on the physical evidence, our knowledge of his deranged mental state, and the continual references to Aeschylus and Sophocles, the conclusion is obvious, both to the reader and to the two SS police officers who wind up investigating the case. And in case we do not get it, Aue mentions having performed, with great conviction and gusto, the title role in Sophocles's Electra during his school days: "The butchery in the House of Atreus was the blood in my own house. "
For Aue, an almost comically obvious figure out of Freud, sexual pleasure is irretrievably entangled with his anger toward his mother. Its primary cause, even before the separation from his sister, was her marriage to his stepfather after his father failed to return from the first war. As a teenager, he performed an act with a sausage destined for the dinner table that makes Portnoy's liver abuse look like fine dining. As an adult, he turns to anonymous homosexual sex in the belief that being penetrated by men allows him to identify further with his sister, to "feel almost everything she felt." Aue's incestuous obsession reaches a climax, if you will pardon the expression, toward the end of the book, when he camps out alone in her mansion in Pomerania (she and her husband have fled to Switzerland in anticipation of the Russian advance) and surrenders himself to days and nights of near-constant fantasy and masturbation, fueled by alcohol and fever. These scenes of depravity are related in unsparing detail. In one fantasy, he and his sister sit at an elegant dining table, eating and drinking their own excrement. (While a certain focus on shit may be justifiable in a book that treats the anus mundi, Littell's interest in it is obsessional. Maybe he has read too much Bataille.) In another, he sodomizes her on a guillotine.
Obviously a man who has sex with his sister, strangles his mother, and ax-murders his stepfather cannot be called an "ordinary" man or an "ordinary German." He is not "just like us." This evil is not banal. So how, then, are we to understand the disconnection between the butchery in Aue's private life and his implacably correct professional demeanor? Does Littell mean to suggest that, in contrast to Arendt's formulation, one can be at once a practitioner of bureaucratic evil and also a monster? If so, this would seem to contradict the argument of the novel: its exhaustive demonstration that the extermination of the Jews was not the work of one man, or even of an important cadre at the top of the Nazi party, but rather by thousands of drones. Are we supposed to think that all the Nazi functionaries--including Eichmann, the very epitome of the Nazi "desk-murderer," who appears many times in the book and whom Littell describes as a man who would have been equally happy trading horses as transporting Jews to Auschwitz--could have been secretly butchers after all? If Aue's incest is supposed to denote his descent from civilization into barbarism, one wonders why his participation in genocide does not suffice to make that point. Who needs incest when you have Auschwitz? Anyway, genocide is perfectly compatible with civilization, as Nazi Germany proved.
Or, since Aue makes no sense psychologically as a realistic character, perhaps we are meant to see him as a symbol--a kind of Jedermann, an every-German. Perhaps he stands for Germany as a whole: a calm, well-educated, well-controlled country that from time to time gave itself up to untrammeled outbursts of savagery. During the Battle of Stalingrad, Aue sustains (and miraculously survives) a bullet through his skull, which leaves him with a literal hole in his head, "a narrow circular corridor, a fabulous, closed shaft, inaccessible to thought"--a symbol of Germany's own blind spot? And the incestuous twin relationship calls to mind the German myth of Siegmund and his sister Siegelinde (popularized, you will recall, by Wagner).
The twin motif serves also as a metaphor for a theme that Littell seems to regard as some kind of intellectual breakthrough: the "twinship" of Jews and Germans. This equivalence is an old idea, and it used to be regarded as very brilliant, as one of the colossal ironies of history. Various scholars (including Arendt) have drawn various analogies between the Jews and the Germans, but they always turn out to be a matter of mere appearances. In Littell's case, this is quite literally so: watching Hitler speak, Aue hallucinates that the Fuhrer is wearing a prayer shawl, tefillin, and sidecurls. At one point, Aue mentions the strange fact that he was circumcised owing to a childhood disease, but this is dismissed as not uncommon, and it is never mentioned again. (In fact, as Piotr Rawicz described many years ago in his hilarious and unforgettable novel Blood from the Sky, medical excuses for circumcision were hard to procure, since Jewish men, unsurprisingly, also tried to get them.)
Despite the parodic quality of its deep, dark symbolism, this interpretation is in some ways more plausible. But it certainly does not ring true as a representation of what went wrong in Germany. A person can appear rational on the surface and yet succumb to occasional bouts of insanity. But a nation cannot go crazy. The Shoah was not a spontaneous eruption of irrational violence. As we know--and as Littell's own book demonstrates--it was designed and carried out by human beings, laid out in endless memos and debated in countless meetings.
But the greatest incoherence in The Kindly Ones concerns the question of retribution. Whether we agree with Littell's mechanism for getting there or not, we have established that Aue is guilty of certain crimes. According to so-called "Greek thought," he performed the acts, regardless of his intent, and so he must pay. But Aue does not pay. The cosmos stops in the middle. In the novel's puzzling conclusion, the two detectives who have been on his heels--are they the Eumenides?--are dispensed with. As the Russians descend on Berlin, Aue escapes to France. The novel concludes with the line, "The Kindly Ones were on to me." (An odd but not indefensible translation of the original, "Les Bienveillantes m'ont trouve.") But we already know that he will live out his days in peace and quiet at the lace-making factory. This is, to say the least, an odd conclusion for "the Greek method of thinking about morality." In Greek tragedy, sinners are not paroled to the French countryside. If the Furies are supposedly on to him, what's keeping them? The answer, I suspect, is the writer's standpoint. Finally Littell's attitude toward all this evil is neither Greek nor Judeo-Christian. It is pornographic. He is raptly, cravenly, fascinated. And fascination is a great impediment to thought.
A review cannot convey how deeply unpleasant the experience of reading The Kindly Ones is. This is one of the most repugnant books I have ever read. Some may put aside its philosophical and aesthetic confusions, and take its utterly persuasive evocation of depravity as a sign of achievement. But if getting under the skin of a murderer were sufficient to produce a masterpiece, then Thomas Harris would be Tolstoy. No, there is something awry in this book's unremitting immersion in Aue's worldview, without any effort--direct or indirect, latent or manifest, philosophical or artistic--to balance or counteract it in any way. Littell told an interviewer for Figaro that Aue was "a possible version of myself, if I had been born German in 1913 rather than American in 1967." Whether or not he realizes it, this is a long way from "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." He has not merely portrayed his protagonist, he has surrendered to him. No wonder he told the same interviewer that Aue is a "quite a decent guy." Arendt observed about Eichmann that "the longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak [without cliches] was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else." It is ironic that this novel, which of course will kill nobody, suffers from precisely such a collapse of empathy.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.