rating: 3 of 5 stars
The fictional autobiography of a SS officer devoted to his duty -- whatever that may be and however unpleasant the work, such as, um, mass murder -- The Kindly Ones is not a great novel, principally because it isn't clear whether Littell subscribes to the notion of the "banality of evil" Hannah Arendt put forward in Eichmann in Jerusalem, as opposed to the notion that the Nazi perpetrators of unspeakable atrocities were evil in some larger than life or monstrous way. This incoherence mars Littell's characterization of the novel's chief protagonist, and hence the book itself: Maximilien Aue is at one level a conscientious and capable Nazi functionary, and if he has a "flaw", it is that he is too honest and sincere, and is thus insensible to the various political currents around him, mastery of which is essential to advancing one's career in any bureaucracy. Aue is also wracked by a traumatic childhood love, namely his sister's; the two were separated by their mother and step-father after their illicit relationship was discovered. Moreover, Aue cannot, even as an adult, seem to forgive his mother for re-marrying after her husband (a World War I veteran drawn to German's burgeoning right wing political scene in the 1920s) goes missing. This Aue -- the vehicle of some rather obvious psychoanalytical cliches -- ends up drawn to Hitler as a sort of replacement father-figure, and winds up a true believer. When exploring the former, Littell's novel is a superb and compelling recreation of the Nazi SS structure, deepening one's appreciation of what Arendt might have meant by her now famous phrase; when exploring the latter, i.e. the erotic/psychological life of Aue, however, The Kindly Ones is just, well, banal, and simply does not justify its thousand-page length.
The above notwithstanding, The Kindly Ones is nevertheless one of the most important novels in years, and ought to be read, principally because of a stunningly plausible recreation of the atmosphere of "total war", and the mentality that enables and implements it. For that achievement, one might forgive the novel its many flaws, not least of them its flimsy and unconvincing evocation of Greek myth (the "kindly ones" of the book's title are the Furies) in a world where industrialized mass slaughter has drained the life from those myths, making them seem quaint. Littell's ability to position his imagination within the Nazi regime is remarkable, leading to a tour de force that is comprehensive and necessarily claustrophobic. Not to mention historically sound: much of the novel makes for a worthy companion-piece to Mark Mazower's indispensable Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Rules Europe; both books take the reader deep within the monumental cruelty and imbecility of the Nazi regime, but also within the "normalcy" of the regime. Mazower's work is the more clear-sighted, but Littell's novel is more wounding, imprisoning the reader in a world that is unacceptable, and seemingly inescapable. When we finally do escape from it into Aue's inner life, we are disappointed: his pining for his lost love/sister, his parental baggage, are rather uninteresting, and a weak denouement to a narrative that has taken us from Germany to Ukraine, the Caucasus, Stalingrad, and back to Berlin, all by means of a vantage point that is alien to us. Littell undoubtedly has a point with the Aue family romance, but this reader was past caring by the point The Kindly Ones concludes by delving into it, the novel's anti-climax all the more feeble given the hundreds of pages of "total war" narrative that have preceded it.
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On a somewhat related note, check out this discussion, principally the exchanges between Spencer L. and me on Nazism.