Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A review of The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

I read about The Kindly Ones in a review in NYRB (which I strongly recommend everyone to peruse regularly (as a close friend recently asked, "how have I lived without this?" after receiving the first issues of her subscription, to which I glibly responded, "in ignorance")), but I cannot say now what in particular it was in the description there that made me so interested in the book. But I was clearly hooked on some level and wanted to buy it, but then only the cloth edition was available and I kept asking myself if I would actually read all of it (not that this has stopped me in the past, mind you) ... and then Y bought it for me while she was buying pregnancy books.

Les Bienveillantes records the life of Maximilien Aue, a young man in his 20s, who is an SS officer during the second World War. The narrative follows the years 1941 to 1944 mostly, although there are snippets from earlier periods of his life, and the beginning of the novel finds our narrator writing to us from contemporary France, having lived a post-war life as an innocuous French burgher.

His address to us is inspiring, and offensive, and quite conscious thereof:
Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you'll retort, and I don't want to know.
This is the apologia of a former SS officer, in the sense of the Socratic contribution to this form, namely, not as an actually apology or even confession insofar as those terms imply guilt, perhaps even remorse, but merely as a retelling of how it happened. It is not exculpatory, although I found myself frequently wanting, at least at first, to somehow acquit this individual of his guilt.

A brief excursus: I feel in this respect a need to confess myself, in part, because I suspect my reactions to this novel may be quite different from others. Prima facie, this may appear merely in the fact that I wanted desperately to read this quite graphic account of an SS officer's life during the war. I think that there is something simultaneously fascinating and horrifying about the Nazis, very much like the scene of an accident from which one cannot look away. I wrote my senior thesis on the novels of Jean Genet, with whom I fell in love upon reading The Thief's Journal. The source of my attraction was always the radical, incongruous transvaluation of values. I am a PK, and have been seeking confirmation of the moral values I naively accepted as a child, and when I did not receive it, I sought the opposite. For these reasons, I find my limit experience in films like Audition (1999) and Funny Games (1997), to which I am drawn as if this is somehow something unquestionably real (but I never finished watching the first, and the second I doubt if I'll ever be able to watch again).

I had to shut the book on reading the description of the protagonist's reluctant participation in the Babi Yar massacre. That is actually more or less where we begin with our narrator, once he allows himself to return to the past. Namely, the movement of the German Army forward into the Ukraine during 1941, when their military might seemed insuperable. The narrator is part of an Einsatzgruppe, a paramilitary death squad. The SS, we learn from Aue, is as its name intends, a security attaché, which is preparing the conquered lands for the Lebensraum--for the emigration of Germans into these lands and the growth of the Third Reich. I guess I had never appreciated the distinction of the Wehrmacht (the army) from the Nazis. I knew that the NSDAP was a political party and that there were others although the former assumed power in the 1933. Yet I suppose I always thought when you were talking about the Nazis you meant Germans during the war. But this is inaccurate, insofar as members of the Wehrmacht were not necessarily Nazis, and the active Nazis during the war were members of the SD and the SS, and when we speak of war crimes we primarily mean the actions of the latter (although obviously there were many exceptions to this). (And so now I wonder if in the film Inglorious Basterds, Brad Pitt's character was seeking the scalps of any Germans or specifically Nazis, and if he appreciated the difference between.)

Einsatzgruppen purged the conquered lands of threats to Nazi party and the Third Reich. Mostly this meant Jews, insofar as they were supposedly closet Bolsheviks or had such leanings. Their duplicitous nature (!) was the cause of this. I won't go into this. But Aue is particularly interesting in that his office was to determine, by the assistance of sociologists and historians and linguists, who were Jews and therefore needed to be exterminated. Aue is an intellectual and has a doctorate in law, and therefore is capable of this kind of labor. Again, I hadn't appreciated the delicacy of this kind of task, namely that because of the logistic challenges of killing thousands of people (at a time), it was important to determine who were actual threats and who were not. Aue befriends other intellectuals who are dubious of the basis of the race studies, but is himself largely convinced, not so much by the veracity of race studies but by the allure and mission of the Third Reich and the Führer in particular. He is a believer. In the latter parts of the book he takes on the study of the workers in the concentration camps and his research demonstrates the divisive, contradictory impulses of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews and yet the necessity of the latter (to be kept in good condition) as military-industrial labor. In this context, Aue advocates better conditions for the Jews and comes to despise the Endlösung.

Aue's political convictions, perhaps we are to speculate, come out of his own Orestian anger. Like Orestes, he holds his mother responsible for his father's disappearance. He desires the restoration of the fatherland. His mother's guilt is unlikely, but this does not matter. She also provokes his contempt insofar as she interrupts the romance between Aue and his sister Una. This relationship is slowly but surely revealed as the most important psychological and emotional event of Aue's life. That romance lasts only during their childhood and early adolescent years. Their mother separates them, sending them to different boarding schools, but they declare their love and faith. Aue keeps it and plans to without end. Una marries an impotent composer and forever wounds Aue. But the images of that relationship seems to subconsciously fuel Aue's homosexual encounters.

The book ends as Berlin falls, but with Aue we have seen Stalingrad and the Ukrainian campaign, we have visited the concentration and the death camps, we have been audience during meetings of SS officers deciding the fates of thousands. We see in vivid detail the horrors of war. Less the sometimes heroic actions of soldiers and troops in battle than the lives of the anonymous peoples who suffer the wake of those military operations. The wake is arguably the worst part, the part that will keep us awake and not allow us to forget. In military operations we at least see an apparently logical movement, destroying participants in battle and the resources that assist them. But the wake, which Littell best represents by the conquest of the Russians across the West into Germany, is the lawlessness that haunts military action.

At the beginning of the book Aue is part of an Einsatzgruppe amongst the most repugnant human beings: violent, bile-filled men thoughtlessly killing innocent people. It is remarkable how the law that allows them to kill these (for the security of the fatherland) protects the members of the SS and Wehrmacht from each other. By the end of the book we see that law break down, although primarily in the Russians who do not countenance the self-deception that war is limited to combatants and who rape and slaughter those in their path.

Humans killing other humans, pointlessly. It is so sickening, but persistent, in this book that it loses dramatic effect. Near the final pages Littell ingeniously employs agents who recapture that horror. As Aue struggles through a crumbling Berlin, still avoiding the Erinyes that plague him, he enter Tiergarten--the zoo. No limit is to be found here.
I entered a half-destroyed building: in a large cage, an immense black gorilla was sitting, dead, a bayonet stuck in its chest. A river of black blood flowed between the bars and mingled with the pools of water. This gorilla looked surprised, astonished; its wrinkled face, its open eyes, its enormous hands, seemed frighteningly human to me ...
As a pet owner, perhaps, this image was worst than anything else I had read. And I had read passages about the snapping bones of dead bodies under foot. But of course, this passage isn't merely about animals and especially not of domestic animals. ... For me, the point is that humans are guilty, existentially, but animals are not, cannot be. So much so that humans are stripped of their "humanity", and only our anthropological cousins can retain it. To understand the banality of the horror of war we must see it in the face of someone or something who is actually human, or deserving of the rights which we deny ourselves.

The Kindly Ones is an exceptional work of historical fiction. I suspect it will be required reading in the future for anyone studying the second world war or the Nazi military campaigns. It overcomes and silences the shallow caricatures of the latter that history has necessarily produced and puts something worse, but more lifelike, in its place. This novel is also an exceptional literary work that I believe will endure. It is repeatedly insightful and honest, confronting the most important moral questions without superficial treatment or resolution. It is beautiful in its persistence in witnessing what is ugliest about human being and our history. I don't know if I think everyone should read it. Rather, I think there are plenty of people who should not--mainly, those who cannot swallow bitter pills (Christians, Republicans, etc.), who prefer illusions. On the other hand, if you are disposed to actually know something, you should read this book.

1 comment:

Dr. Trott said...

I haven't read this book yet, and I'm not sure I will, given my distaste for movies like "Funny Games." But I am intrigued by your review, specifically the relation between the violence perpetrated by the main character and his role as the "sovereign" insofar as it is his duty to determine who is a threat (a Jew) and who is not. I took it as tongue-in-cheek that because the man was an intellectual, he was capable of fulfilling this task. Of course, this task has nothing to do with intellectual prowess, but with power. I can't believe that smarter, better read people can better determine what the threat is to the state than the illiterate. At least, those in power would never suggest such a thing, witness Bush and crew, who thought their very distaste for such things enabled them to see the real culprits without the complications that thinking brings.

In that sense, I am also struck by the association of this book with Socrates' Apology. For Socrates certainly thinks that he can see who the real threats are to the city, and yet, it is he who is destroyed for this knowledge, or perhaps for being a punk about having that knowledge. Or rather, his having that knowledge or claiming it (by testing and pushing those who claim to know but do not and by asserting that only those who know help the youth and everyone else corrupts) Socrates becomes a threat to the city as it exists.

On another point, your confession that you enjoy the voyeurism of violence and destruction as a cathartic expunging of the morals that you have been trying to justify and found unjustifiable is fascinating and I'd like to hear you explore that at greater length, perhaps in relation to other literary or film works you enjoy. Is it cathartic or is it a mere inversion? Are you just rebelling or have you in fact stopped living in reaction to those morals but given yourself your own values like a proper Nietzschean sovereign individual? Is the pleasure still in transgression in which case those original morals still have enormous power? If Zizek is right and analysis is over when the analysand realizes there is no big O other, then our moral lives must come from the unground of ourselves and we must be content with that. Where are you in the spectrum?