'The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell
Reviewed By Laila Lalami
Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare's Richard III and "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In "The Kindly Ones," the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.
"The Kindly Ones" is ostensibly the memoir of Maximilien Aue, a legal scholar who joins the main intelligence branch within the SS and slowly rises through the echelons of power. As a Nazi officer, he witnesses or participates in the major events of World War II -- the Eastern Front, the Battle of Stalingrad, the massacres in Auschwitz -- but evades capture after the fall of the Third Reich. He flees to France, uses his prewar connections to start a lace business, marries, has children and grandchildren, and leads the quiet life of a petit bourgeois.
In occasional flashbacks, the reader discovers a few details about Aue's birth and upbringing. When Aue was just a young boy, his father, a German veteran of World War I, went to visit a relative and never returned. Aue's mother then married a Frenchman, moving the family to the Côte d'Azur. For several years, Aue carried on an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una, until the two were found out and swiftly separated. Aue later has many homosexual encounters because, he says, he hopes to replicate his sister's sexual pleasures with him. If you think this story is unpleasant, or convoluted, or tragically Greek, wait until you get to the last third of the book.
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