1001 Book Review: The Kindly Ones Jonathan Littell
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Little
Published in: 2006
Original Language: French
Awards: Prix Goncourt 2006
Reviewed by: Book Worm
Find it here: The Kindly Ones
Amazon Synopsis: Dr Max Aue is a family man and owner of a lace factory in post-war France. He is an intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music. He is also a former SS intelligence officer and cold-blooded assassin. He was an observer and then a participant in Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front, he was present at the siege of Stalingrad, at the death camps, and finally caught up in the overthrow of the Nazis and the nightmarish fall of Berlin.
His world was peopled by Eichmann, Himmler, Göring, Speer and, of course, Hitler himself.
Max is looking back at his life with cool-eyed precision; he is speaking out now to set the record straight.
Review: The Kindly Ones is the story of Max Aue, a German homosexual who also happens to be an officer in the SS. Accused of being a homosexual, Aue is blackmailed into joining the SD a branch of the SS to avoid a prosecution that would have likely resulted in his death. Having survived the war, he now wants to tell his story and explain why he was party to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
As an officer in the SS, Aue is sent to the Ukraine where he witnesses and records the work of the death squads as they clear the area of Jews. He details how the work is made more efficient by using the sardine technique where the condemned dig their own graves, lie down in them like sardines, and are shot in the back of the head. He also details how the killers are either driven mad by the work or come to enjoy it too much.
After falling out of favor, Aue is posted to the siege of Stalingrad where he is injured and as a result is sent back to Berlin to work closely with Speer on the Jewish question and ways of making a work force of prisoners supplied by the work camps work more efficiently.
This had the potential to be a great book however, for me it was ruined by the detailed minutiae of German ranks and the constant obsession with diarrhea, deviant sexual fantasies, and incest. If the author had concentrated on Aue and the men around him without bombarding the reader with detailed analysis of German military ranks, I would have likely rated this much higher. It would be nice to read a book that felt no need to try and make itself unsavoury by using sex and instead concentrated on what was really important: the way the Germans justified what they did to the Jews.
There were compelling elements in the book. I found it interesting to read about the ways the Germans were investigating the heritage of Jews in the Ukraine and Russia based on their language and use of ritual as well as their ancestry. I also found it horribly compelling the way Aue was involved in trying to secure a work force of camp prisoners for the German war effort by arguing for livable rations, but only for those who could work allowing “natural selection” to remove those who were a burden. There is no doubt that while a fictional piece of work, an incredible amount of research went into the writing of the book.
Aue is bothered psychologically by what he witnesses, and by what he does, however, he believes war is war and enemies of the state deserve to die. He is shocked when the German behavior of killing the Jews is compared with the allies killing innocents in their bombing raids.
Jason Burke, a reviewer for the Guardian paper, described this book as “an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history.” While certainly compelling in a horrific way, the amount of graphic sexual content and violence was unpleasant. I was asking my hubbie what one of the ranks was (before I realized there was an index at the back) and he saw the quote “my arse was full of sperm.” That is not exact quote as the book is back at the library, but it really was along those lines.
You can read the full Guardian review of the book here: The Kindly Ones
Want to try it for yourself? You can find it here: The Kindly Ones