Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) (2006)
Chatto & Windus, 975pp
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
No recent novel has, I am certain, caused as much controversy as Jonathan Littell’s second novel, Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the story of Maximillian Aue, an SS Officer during the Second World War and the question of complicity. It is a provocative subject that Littell wrestles with over a thousand pages, perhaps ultimately reaching no decision, but the reader is left with the sense that, perhaps, that is the point.
Les Bienveillantes has become an international success. Littell, American born but French speaking, published his novel in 2006 in France and it enjoyed immediate critical success. Probably because of its length, it has taken three years to reach British shores in an astute translation by Charlotte Mandell.
Told by Aue himself, sometime after the end of the War, when he is again living in France, Les Bienveillantes is split into seven sections, most of which take their name from the composite elements of a symphony. Near the end of the introductory first part – Toccata – Aue tells us: “I live, I do what can be done, it’s the same for everyone, I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Littell has laid the challenge down to the reader: can you sympathise with a man who does bad things? What is those bad things are done because they must be done, as part of a job, as commanded, as the only way to survive?
Aue shares little with other men, though. He is not like me, nor I suspect is he like you. To talk more fluidly about this novel I must reveal one of its big secrets, so if you have not read this novel I would suggest you cease reading now. Aue’s secrets are slowly revealed to the reader, through the slow drip of information, though long before he says what he has done, we already suspect him of it. When he was a boy Aue was banished from his family home and sent to an abusive boarding school because he was involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister. This relationship overshadows every encounter Aue has, whether they are romantic or purely sexual, and what all these relationships prove is that Aue is a repressed homosexual with a fixation on the anus. All of this reveals that he is not like every men, he is a distinct man with his own complications and fetishes. Many critics have commented that this undermines Aue and empathetic stance with him, but had Aue been a bland figure, swept along by this tide of history, I believe he would have become less empathetic – he needs these personal and social disfigurements to become real.
Again to this question of complicity. Aue says: “I too could have asked to leave… so why then didn’t I? Probably because I hadn’t yet understood what I wanted to understand. Would I ever understand it? Nothing was less certain…” What is it he needs to understand? The Reich’s policy of extermination? The human ability to kill and inflict suffering? Himself? It is perhaps all of these things, and more. It becomes the constant refrain of this novel.
Littell’s novel fetishises military terminology: “Administratively, we’re subordinated to the Sixth Army. But tactically we receive our orders from the RHSA, via the Gruppenstab, and from the HSSPF. Is that clear?” Only if we know Reich military organisational structure. It shows Littell has done his research, and at times through this novel he seems to batter us about the head with it: whether it is in military matters, historical matters, linguistic questions, anthropological questions, classical questions: Littell seems to know it all, and at times he seems to have cut and paste from an encyclopaedia all that he has learnt. I was reminded of an old creative writing class adage: do your research but don’t let your reader know you have, let it be revealed through the characters and plot. Littell wants to show us, time and again; and yet this is not a criticism. Aue is narrating long after the events, so if anybody is showing off it is Aue, for us. I think Aue is trying to tell us he considered matters, closely, by showing us how much he knows. I do not believe for a moment that Doktor Voss lectures Aue in such detail: Aue is showing off. If this is my misreading of Littell then so be it. Aue is trying to forgive himself by having us ‘understand’.
Another criticism I have is that Littell engineers his narrative in such a way that Aue is present at all the critical moments of the Reich’s War, causing at times, his narrative to resemble Zelig, the Woody Allen comedy. He’s on the front, he’s at Stalingrad, he’s at Auschwitz, he’s retreating from the oncoming Russian army, he’s in Berlin during the bombings, and he’s in Hitler’s bunker just before the end. It’s the greatest hits of the Third Reich, and at times this undermines the authenticity of Littell’s novel. Was any one man present at so much? As to the biting of the nose incident…. is this Aue trying to show us: look, I realised how wrong we were and I tried to do something. The two detectives who hunt Aue near the end also seem to appear too relentless and appear with too much ease at critical moments. The last hundred pages of his work come across more as farce than considered apologia.
My final problem Les Bienveillantes is the same problem I have with Schindler’s List and other such Holocaust works – it comes across, as David Mamet put it, of being pornography for the emotions. Littell certainly plays it up. It poses the question of whether one can truly write about such events without becoming manipulative. Okay, so Littell’s work doesn’t have such obvious symbolism or a little girl in a red coat, but he does manipulate. At times his manipulation turned my stomach. Would such tragedy be better represented by its absence? I do not mean denial, I mean in its absence but suggestion, as a ghost behind the narrative, because none of us can forget, but should the dead not be allowed to rest?
Les Bienveillantes will continue to cause academic and literary debate for some time to come, and I have not analysed it in the depth that it deserves, but these are my few thoughts upon reading it once, and quickly, written in a day of constant disruption from outside elements. Is it the great work some have hailed it? I’m uncertain. I think only time will tell. What is though is a filthy, degenerate romp through Germany’s war, and certainly worth the effort of reading, despite its problems, or perhaps, indeed, because of them.
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