“The Kindly Ones”

November 23, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

This review of a book I finished two months ago comes at the request of a reader who wanted to know whether to tackle it, despite intense controversy.  Indeed, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is not for everyone.  It’s an enormous time investment, so it’s not something that can be picked up casually and finished over a weekend.  (If you did in fact do this, write to me right away!)  It could also scar your brain.

Product Details

Masterpiece or monstrosity?  First, I’ll tell you why the haters hate this book.  It’s huge.  In hardcover, it’s nearly 1000 pages.  It has large pages, narrow margins, and small text.  Paragraphs run on for pages without a break.  There are few section breaks, so it’s hard to pick a stopping point.  Dialogue is introduced without quote marks and sometimes lacks indication of who is speaking.  Foreign phrases are left untranslated in several different languages.  It would be a difficult book to read, no matter the subject.

The subject matter is such that sensitive people simply cannot stomach it.  The Kindly Ones is full of graphic descriptions of mass graves, murders, and unnatural sexual acts.  Aside from that, it’s an awfully long time to spend looking through the eyes of a Nazi!  Reading this book would not be advised for people who couldn’t get through American Psycho, for example.  The reason I didn’t review this book, which I loved, was that I couldn’t in good conscience send people out to read it knowing that so many of them would probably have nightmares.

Why should someone bother to read this challenging, heavy, sometimes disgusting book at all?  (My husband asked what it was about and said, “Why are you even reading that?”)  Simply put, I found it one of the most stunning artistic triumphs I’d ever read.  I couldn’t leave it alone.  It took me five days, and even after that time it was the only thing I could think about.

Nonfiction books are often complimented by the endorsement that they “read like a novel.”  The Kindly Ones is a novel that often reads like non-fiction.  It was meticulously researched and chock-full of the sort of detail that often bores me – I’ve tried to read The Hunt for Red October three times, and fallen asleep in the first chapter each time – but in this case fascinated me.  The scene is set with such utter precision that the reader is transported into the page.

There is a paradox at work.  Max Aue is one of the most unsympathetic characters ever written.  He’s sort of gross.  Yet when he’s on the job, he is constantly concerned with and frustrated by the inefficiency, irrationality, and general incompetency of Nazi projects.  What makes him a freak has nothing to do with what makes him a Nazi.  His professionality underscores the profound absurdity and horror of the Holocaust and the twisted clockworks that ran it.

The Kindly Ones is important for two reasons (beyond the obvious, that it’s just brilliantly written, and once you get into it you’ll find yourself swept away like I was).  First, it would be completely impossible for the reader ever to equivocate on whether the Holocaust really happened [historian’s note: it exists in living memory, meaning there are people alive now who were there, so we have incontrovertible proof] or why it is so important for humanity and the further unrolling of history to remember it and work to avoid a recurrence.  Second, it’s an unparalleled look at human evil, where it comes from, and what it looks like.  Neither of these things are fun, so if you read for entertainment, stay away.

Max Aue says:

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!

In context, it’s extremely moving.  Luckily, this statement falls in the very first section of the book, Toccata.  If you have read this far and are still intrigued by the book, read the first section.  It’s quite short, and it could work as a sort of summary of the message of the work.  In fact, I think it would make an excellent kind of “fictional essay” for a lit class.

Best of luck, don’t read it on your honeymoon, and let me know what you thought of it.

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