‘The Kindly Ones’ not kind to readers

  “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell has been widely acclaimed in Europe. An American raised in France, Littell wrote the book in French and it was translated into English by Charlotte Mandell.
  Maybe something was lost in the translation, but “The Kindly Ones” is an overwritten gore fest that seems more intended to shock readers than to offer any meaningful perspective on its subject.
  Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer, recounts his experiences with graphic detail in this fictional memoir. With cold detachment, he recalls seeing women and babies slaughtered, men worked to death, families gassed.
  Though he himself seems to take no pleasure in the killing, it does pique his curiosity. Intellectually he enjoys dissecting the reactions of the participants — victims as well as executioners.
  I could now distinguish three different temperaments among my colleagues. First, there were those who, even if they tried to hide it, killed with sensual pleasure; I have already talked about them, they were criminals who revealed their true nature thanks to the war. Then there were those who were disgusted by it and who killed out of duty, overcoming their repugnance, out of a love of order. Finally, there were those who regarded the Jews as animals and killed them the way a butcher slaughters a cow — a joyful or a difficult task, according to their humor or disposition.
  While Max observes the monstrous actions unfolding around him, he also reflects on his past: abandoned by his father; estranged from his remarried mother; in love with his twin sister.
  Did the record skip?
  Yes, Max is deeply in love with his sister after having sexual relations with her as a boy. He is so infatuated by her that he’s convinced no other woman could ever measure up, but a man has needs, so he turns to other men. Preoccupied with his incestuous memories, the homosexual Nazi officer goes about his business in secret, keeping his sexual proclivities very much to himself. He does detail his trysts for readers, though.
  I brought the boy back to my hotel. Under his cap, he had curly, unruly hair; a light down covered his stomach and darkened in curls on his chest; his olive skin awoke in me a furious desire of mouth and of ass. He was as I liked them, taciturn and available. For him, my ass opened like a flower.
  Max’s obsession awkwardly detours the story. His homosexuality is not tied into a plot line of hypocrisy, though it’s not lost on Max that the Germans are killing gays as well as anyone else of whom they disapprove. Along with his sexual relations, Max, or perhaps the author, seems preoccupied with bodily functions. While diarrhea certainly played a part in many deaths in the concentration camps, Littell goes on and on about its sickeningly sweet smell or Max’s intestinal distress. The sheer amount of this content serves only to distract readers than further the story.
  Additional distractions, all written in excruciatingly long paragraphs, include monotonous dialogues on the origins of Jews, pages and pages of language dissection, as well as bizarre, confusing dream sequences.
  All this is not to say that “The Kindly Ones” is not without merit.
  Max’s recollection of the Battle of Stalingrad is brutal yet engaging and his descriptions of Auschwitz nauseating yet haunting. Even his relationship with his mother is an interesting part of the story.
  Most readers would expect to hate a narrator such as Max, because he is an immoral bastard. The despicable Nazi officer and nonsensical violence don’t come as a shock in this kind of fiction, but where Littell fails is with all the long asides, which easily could have been cut out of the nearly 1,000-page book. The author’s self-indulgence makes this novel, which could have had dramatic resonance, one big shit-filled slog.

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