Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones begins, “Oh my human brothers.” In so doing, he loses no time in posing the question that the next thousand pages seek to answer: How can men treat their human brothers with calculating and unrelenting cruelty? The speaker is a former SS officer. His direct address is essential to this enterprise, and more than one note of chilling irony can be heard therein. One such is his uncommon cultivation. Littell, a dual citizen of France and the United States, wrote his novel in French, and many of its first readers recognized the famous opening line (“Frères humains qui après nous vivez”) of François Villon’s “Ballade des pendus,” in which the poet, awaiting execution, begs for clemency. Unlike Villon, however, Littell’s narrator, Maximillian Aue, seeks no pardon—and needs none. He has already eluded capture and, more than half a century after the war’s end, leads an outwardly tranquil life manufacturing lace in northern France, married and with two children (who know nothing of his earlier life). He has decided to tell his long, grim tale. As he does, apostrophe will turn to accusation: “Now of course the war is over. And we’ve learned our lesson, it won’t happen again. But are you quite sure we’ve learned our lesson? Are you certain it won’t happen again?”
Aue’s story begins with the entry of the German Army into Ukraine in 1941 and ends with the fall of Berlin in 1945. The intervening stations are among the most horrific the war offered, from the massacre at Babi Yar to Stalingrad to Belzec and Auschwitz. Aue notes early on that what follows is “a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play.” For it to be edifying, however, Aue must be something other than what’s expected. While he may witness and commit acts few would hesitate to call evil, his evil is far from banal and in no way corresponds to a stereotype. Aue is neither a blinkered lackey nor a bloodthirsty sadist. On the contrary, he is independent-minded, sensitive, and articulate. He does not believe Nazi propaganda concerning Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, or foreigners (he is himself bisexual and half-French). Nevertheless, he is at the tip of the spear—in the SS.
The result for the reader is a thought experiment of a special sort. We are inclined to declare that killers are not my human brothers. It’s much more difficult to see that evil is made up of the same stuff as good. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn remarked that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” Aue makes a similar case, stressing that not only psychopaths made the Holocaust possible. There were indeed such tortured and torturing souls, but they were a tiny minority, just as they were in Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, and the other places Littell has spent time working for aid organizations. Some surely loved violence and craved blood; some suffered from madnesses we may be unable to understand. But there were also those—the vast majority—whose positions we can all too easily imagine. “There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time,” Aue says. “Our quiet suburbs are crawling with pedophiles and maniacs, our homeless shelters are packed with raving megalomaniacs; and some of them do indeed become a problem, they kill two, three, ten, even fifty people—and then the very same State that would without batting an eye send them to war crushes them like a blood-swollen mosquito. These sick men are nothing. But the ordinary men that make up the State—especially in unstable times—now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, is you.”
The reader faces a powerful if implicit question: What if those we condemn did not select evil at one particular moment but, instead, found themselves in a situation where all options seemed bad, where a compromising choice was made, followed by another and another as the slope became too slippery for them to climb their way back? This does not constitute innocence, but it does demand a different answer to the question of why men and women treated their human brothers and sisters as they did.
The Kindly Ones is indeed about cruelty and evil in the way that morality plays are, but it is also about evil in history, the weaving together of hundreds of objectives, millions of people, into an ensemble so vast, diverse, and ever-changing that even a well-placed and sharp-sighted observer cannot fully grasp it. Aue wiles away his idle hours by reading, among other things, Stendhal. He is, however, not like Fabrice, who sleeps through much of Waterloo. He gets a good view of things—and not merely as an observer. Littell impresses two things on us with admirable force: the scale of the war and the scale of its bloodshed. Aue begins with statistics (26.6 million killed on the eastern front and in the concentration camps, or, on average, 13.04 deaths per minute from the invasion of Russia until the end of the war). Soon, however, he turns to the bloody facts on the ground, recounted in minute detail and with painstaking accuracy: “The corpses were piled up in a big paved courtyard, in disordered mounds, scattered here and there. An immense, haunting buzzing filled the air: thousands of heavy blue flies were hovering over the bodies, the pools of blood, the fecal matter. My boots stuck to the pavement. The dead were already swelling up, I gazed at their green and yellowish skin, their faces gone shapeless, as if they’d been beaten to death. The smell was vile; and this smell, I knew, was the beginning and the end of everything.”
Some readers—chief among them film director Claude Lanzmann—have denounced this as sensationalism. Whether or not such criticism is justified, Littell does present a compelling reason for the graphic portrayal of so much violence: to convey the scale of the bloodshed—not in mere numbers but in concrete situations. For Aue, and those around him, violent death has become an everyday experience. Against this bloody backdrop, the stage is set for an individual—Aue—without close ties, without firm allegiances, moderately ambitious and relatively cynical, who plays an active part in what Primo Levi flatly called “the greatest crime in the history of humanity.”
The Kindly Ones was awarded France’s Prix Goncourt, and during the media blitz that followed, Littell claimed he had written the first draft of his nearly thousand-page novel in a mere 112 days. The extraordinary first 860 pages don’t suggest having been put to paper at such a clip. The last hundred, however, show signs, if not of fatigue, then of something approaching fever. While the meticulously realistic main plot of The Kindly Ones is brilliantly organized and written, the same is not true of its subplot of familial crime and punishment. The narrator’s forbidden love for his twin sister, Una (married to a Prussian nobleman), the mysterious murder of their parents, the equally enigmatic presence and then disappearance of twins (possibly the incestuous offspring of Una and Aue), as well as the Kafkaesque police detectives Weser and Clemens, who pursue Aue—these intrigues are all, when compared with the other events recounted, less than compelling. This tale of incest and matricide obscures Aue’s relation to the Nazi Party he serves and to the genocide he helps perpetrate. The same is true of the hallucinatory scenes of the solitary Aue in Usedom wandering an empty forest and castle, sodomizing himself with heterogeneous objects, drifting through a haze of longing and desire. The carnivalesque conclusion—set in a zoo in flames with the absurd officers still in pursuit—offers some striking images, but its phantasmagoric character dulls the edge of artful realism found earlier.
What, then, of the novel’s ominous title? It goes unmentioned until the very last lines. By then, it’s clear that those in question are kindly only in name—and for a special reason. Aue’s erudition stretches to ancient Greece, as do his crimes. “The kindly ones” are better known by a less gentle name—the Furies, the Greek gods responsible for the punishment of blood guilt, especially concerning family members. The title thus weaves together the novel’s central themes: the story of incest and matricide that recalls the fate of Orestes, the Furies of memory who still visit the aging Aue, and, finally, the idea of euphemism itself. Like the Greeks, like all our human brothers and sisters, we try to name and thereby domesticate those elements in our past and present with which we cannot come to grips. We might look at a given time and place—be it Nazi Germany or today’s Congo —and say to ourselves that we would act differently, and then close the book. But The Kindly Ones reminds us that, like the narrator, we, too, have our Furies, name them how we will.
Leland de la Durantaye is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of English at Harvard University. He is the author of Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (Cornell University Press, 2007).