NONE OF US IS IMMUNE FROM BECOMING A "NAZI"
A Review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones
Les Bienveillantes, Gallimard, Paris 2006, pp. 906, € 25
Le benevole, transl. by Margherita Botto, Einaudi, Turin 2007, pp. 956, € 24
To be published in English by HarperCollins (US) and Chatto & Windus (UK)
The winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2006. A monumental debut novel* written in French by an American. A publishing sensation in several countries. A subject of surprise, shock and admiration. A cause of immense uproar on the right and on the left, by historians and critics, gentiles and jews. Why?
Because it is clear since the beginning (i.e. since the long prologue titled "Toccata") that Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones aims to be the supreme and definitive novel on Nazi Germany and the extermination of Jews.
Of this ambition -this hubris that defies all previous literary works on the subject- I have had a direct experience lasted many days. To read The Kindly Ones is to become the stunned witness of an overflow: drop after drop, trickle by trickle, the river gets swollen with data, anecdotes, memories, dreams and citations - the water rises on the sides until it breaks out. We arrive on the Russian front pushed by the current, the enormous wave wipes out whole cultures and countless lives until it impacts with the unpredicted, inexplicable resistance at Stalingrad. The stalemate hollows out a hole in the life of the main character, SS officer Maximilien Aue. That empty space is filled with madness, and for one time it is not systemic, organized, bureaucratized folly: it is wild, singular insanity. The Soviet encircling attack opens a cleft in time and Aue's devastated mind produces visions and fantasies. Now the passages are fluid, the prose does not march anymore to the beat of numbers and acronyms, all is white and there's no sound... And at this very point the wave turns back with multiplied violence, the Red Army and General Winter annihilate the 6.Armee, Aue survives and is flown back to Berlin.
Once the flood wave has been repeled - and let me repeat that it's a flood wave of information -, it covers new directions and inundates new fields. The dark brown waters carry further stories, conversations, memories of incest and sodomy, nightmares and citations from other works (plays, novels and essays, feature films and documentaries). The character, the author and the book get bogged down in the smothering bureaucracy of the concentration camp world, the Final Solution, the Holocaust. And the Holocaust is mainly a matter of management: whereas the dreadful Aktionen - the massacres of jews in occupied Ukraine - had budged Aue's conscience and lashed him with guilt and doubts, the Final Solution finds him desensitized, apathically devoted to the task: "Now a great indifference prevailed in me, not dismal, but light and precise". We're about two thirds into the novel, and Auschwitz appears only now, here's Höss, and here comes Mengele... The flood becomes an artificial lake of dense, gluey water, minutiae float and stick to the skin. "Besides, if I were to tell you in details all the rest of year 1944, as I've done until now, I would never finish. You see, I care about you as well, not only about myself, at least a little, of course there are limits, if I take all these pains it isn't for your pleasure..." And so on and so forth, toward the catastrophe, the escape, the bourgeois camouflage.
This is not just the typical courage of the debut author: my impression is that the writer was routed by his research and his narrative project, until he became a prisoner. Littell secluded himself in the world he was evoking, i.e. the Germany of the Third Reich, a whole nation as one big concentration camp, a camp confining not only the victims but also the persecutors and their accomplices (this image was proposed many years ago by Bruno Bettelheim). Since "he who is a vassal is free" (Frei sein ist Knecht sein), the result was a great narrative freedom: Littell wants to tell everything, show us everything, describe every mechanism, linger on every crime.
The Kindly Ones is a hyperrealistic book, it really sounds like the too-long-procrastinated memoirs of a former war criminal. The number of pages (the Italian edition counts 956, packed with lines and with very few paragraph interruptions), the exorbitant digressions, the punctiliousness on even the tiniest detail, all this recalls the typical incontinence of the elderly when writing their lives.
also sounds like a literary version (an upside-down version, since the point of view is that of the murderers) of historian The Kindly Ones Saul Friedländer's colossal achievement, the two tomes of Nazi Germany and the Jews. Friedländer updated the work of Raul Hillberg and devoted himself to the most extensive and detailed account of the Final Solution, drawing on any kind of sources and accumulating thousands of stories, which were then put together to make the general picture. However, Friedländer's narrative is a multitudinous one, as millions of people carry its grievous weight. That tale is the most difficult to tell, it grips your temples, and only a choral structure can uphold such an effort. On the contrary, The Kindly Ones has only one protagonist, one "filter", an "I" with feet of clay bending and swaying under the burden of tragedy, often falling, losing consistency and coherence. What a thankless task, to express the inexpressible in lone soliloquy.
The question the readers ask themselves is: why does Aue do those things, in spite of the disgust he feels, the time he spends retching, and the psychosomatic diarrhoea that torments him for nearly a half of the novel?
Because he's an Enlightenment intellectual, that's what Littell seems to tell us. Aue is a young, extremely well-read man of letters, he's aware of the evil dialectics of Enlightenment, so aware that he wants to see it fulfilled.
[I will not dwell upon the fact that the so-called "Enlightenment" torn apart by Adorno and Horkheimer (and later by packs of postmodern thinkers) bears no similarity with the Enlightenment as historically existed. Robert Darnton explains it very well in George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century.]
In plain words, Aue wants to know how far he can push before he stops feeling. He wants to see whether the many excuses, convenient rationalizations and false syllogisms will eventually prevail against nausea, pity and remorse. As this happens, he finds himself yearning for the horror and the grief that he felt at the beginning, "that initial shock, that sensation of rupture, that infinite jolting of all my being". Aue is the guinea pig of his own experiment on the boundaries of the human. Together with us, the "brothers" he's called into question since the opening sentence, he'll find out that the human has no boundaries, that "inhuman" and "anti-human" are hypocritical adjectives. This is what disturbed many readers.
It's the usual trap of the narrating I: I walk along with Aue, follow him into the experiment, think along with him, in a way I am him as he is me and anyone of us: "The common men of which the state is composed, here is the real peril, especially in periods of instability. The real peril for man is me, it is you. And if you are not persuaded, it is no use reading further: you wouldn't understand and you would get angry, with no benefit for me or you."
As long as Aue suffers for the pain he inflicts, I suffer along with him, and I retch along with him. The description of the Aktionen in Ukraine is hardly endurable: all fathers and mothers will see their own children in any kid shot down and thrown naked on a heap of corpses. Those pages make you love life desperately, they make you cling to it with all your strength, because there is nothing "edifying" in the way victims meet their death, here we have dozens and dozens of pages describing open air butchery, and they're nasty pages, because violent death is nasty: there is no time for last words that touch the heart, there is no space for plastic postures in the throng of the mass grave, death suffered in confusion is even more miserable and unredeemed.
And yet I gradually succumb to quantity, my defenses get up again, experience moves away and compassion is annulled. A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, ipse dixit. Massacre after massacre, I get as desensitized as Aue, I achieve his same detachment. The novel hits the nail on the head (if that's the nail it aimed at) and manages to show that anyone can get used to the horror. At worst he'll pay the price with psychosomatic troubles, bruxism and the shits. Big deal.
Besides, every day thousands of children starve to death without troubling my sleep, don't they? Does my not being there to watch them die, my being thousands of miles away, make me so different from Maximilien Aue, much less guilty than he is? Aue is my brother, it is against me that I have to look out. None of us is immune from becoming a "nazi".
Littell has got a point, but his success is also a failure, because it anaesthetizes me, it disperses the heat from the fingers holding the book. The inflation of death-currency really makes me see a massacre as little more than a statistic, and the risk is that we become more cinic instead of more alert to ourselves. Heterogenesis of the aims. To put it clearly: once we've finished the reading we're meaner than when we started.
This said, it's an important, epoch-defining novel, a novel that cannot and must not be ignored, a novel we have to read and struggle with. It is also an arduous novel, crammed with hundreds of names which is impossible to remember, German words that make you feel awkward, paperwork stuffed into the text with no mediation. Quite often, Littell goes beyond sciolism and parades himself in long tirades and chains of cryptic phrases, as if he were addressing the milieu of historians rather than the common readers, and maybe it's really that way.
During a stay in Paris, Aue bumps into a book by Maurice Blanchot, Faux Pas, which includes an essay on Moby Dick, an "impossible book" that "reveals itself only through the question it asks". As a declaration of poetics, it is even blatant: Littell is melvillian from the sphyncter to the optic nerve. And if Melville - as Henry Jenkins suggested - wrote the way he did because he was a fan, an enthusiast of whale hunting who wished to describe it in depth, then what is Littell a fan of? Littell is a fan of the 20th century, the "century of steel and fire". To grasp its essence is his obsession, the brown whale he's been hunting for years.
And isn't that an obsession we all share? That world is always with us: the second world war is the most narrated and represented event in history, and the Führer keeps us company popping up as a reminder, a touchstone, a pop culture icon. Any genocide or bloodshed is implicitly or explicitly estimated in comparison with Shoah, which we refer to by a metonymy: "Auschwitz". All enemies, even occasional ones, are compared with the Dauber. American lawyer Mike Godwin formulated a "rule" (Godwin's Law) which states: "As an [online] discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
The Kindly Ones will not be the definitive novel on Nazism. We'll keep telling that story, because we can't help it. We still live in it and who knows when we'll get over it. Nazism lost the war, and yet it won and became a sine qua non for our imagination. [WM1]
* Actually a quasi-debut: in 1989 Littell wrote a science-fiction novel titled Bad Voltage.
[This review was published on L'Unità daily paper on September 30, 2007. Original Italian text here.]