Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The angle on Jonathan Littell that the media will pick up on is the colorful case of an
American-born author writing in French. His award-winning novel
The Kindly Ones
was originally published as
Les Bienveillantes in 2006, and only now appears in
English in a translation by Charlotte Mandell. If Horace
Engdahl, soon to retire as secretary of the Swedish
Academy, is correct in claiming that American writers
are too insular and parochial, what better way of
breaking out of the box than to move overseas (Littell
lives in Barcelona), write in French, and set your novel
in Germany?

Yes, Littell’s background makes for an interesting
sidebar story. But I would be the last person to advise
you to read
The Kindly Ones because of the author’s
mailing address and passport status. (For the record,
Littell holds joint US and French citizenship, the latter
granted, despite his lack of permanent residency and
New York birth, because his "meritorious actions
contribute to the glory of France.") The attraction
here is inside the book, an ambitious novel that
seems to hark back to an earlier age of fiction, in
which authors—and, let’s be honest, publishers—still
had confidence in big, sweeping, serious fiction on a grand Tolstoyian or
Dostoevskian scale.

There will be a backlash against a novel so sober and sprawling. If you received a
large inheritance and decided to replace your home with a skyscraper, the
neighbors would be mad as hell. And the literary neighborhoods are hardly any
friendlier than the Joneses next door. In the current literary world, which seems to
have taken to heart the maxim that “small is beautiful,” a work on the scale of
The
Kindly Ones
is likely to scare, irritate or intimidate many among those who make
their living draining the ink-blood out of toner cartridges.

Certainly Littell does not make it easy for himself by tackling a 1,000-page
Holocaust novel. With so many exemplary books out there that already trod this
ground, readers may wonder what new angle Littell might have beyond what has
already been covered in the history books, memoirs, films, documentaries, novels
and other narrative accounts, to justify a work of such daunting length. After the
subject has been treated in comic book form (Art Spiegelman’s
Maus) told in
backward chronology like a film in reverse (Martin Amis’s
Times Arrow), brought to
life in young adult fiction (Judith Kerr’s
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit), and tackled in
numerous conventional and unconventional novels by some of the finest writers of
the last half-century, how does Littell stand out from the crowd?

Trust me, he does. If Hannah Arendt grabbed our attention by calling attention to
the “banality of evil” from this chapter in history, then Littell is the writer who
shows us “the
bureaucratization of evil.” This is no small achievement. The
institutionalization and bureaucratization of genocide must stand out as the most
horrific development of the twentieth century, yet it is also the most difficult to
portray in literary form. We grasp the Holocaust in small pieces, but how can a
storyteller muster not just the courage, but more specifically the narrative
structure, to grab on to the larger tragedy?

Bureaucracy—and not just Nazi bureaucracy—typically falls outside the purview of
the novel. This narrative form grew up hand-in-hand with an expansion of
individualism and a fascination with subjective perspectives on social phenomena,
as Ian Watt showed long ago in his
The Rise of the Novel. As such, the novel is well
suited to narrate the course of a romance or a rags-to-riches tale, but large-scale,
institutionalized activities are maddeningly difficult to evoke in the context of fiction.
This is what makes
War and Peace (to cite the most famous example) such a
remarkable book. Put simply, it is easy enough to describe a fight or even a small
skirmish in a story, but a war is another matter entirely. To pull it off, Tolstoy
needed to take on the mantle of philosopher and historiographer and depart from
the traditional narrative structure to achieve his sublime effects.

Littell rarely engages in overt philosophizing. (However, when he does deliver a
discourse on, say, Kant’s categorical imperative or the ethics of colonialism or the
Greek concept of fate, it is handled with insight and pointed relevance to the
unfolding story.) Instead he follows the rise of a German jurist turned soldier, Dr.
Max Aue, whose military career takes him to various locations on the Eastern front
and, increasingly as the story develops, into the orbit of the death camps. Along
the way, Aue encounters a number of real-life personages, notably Adolf Eichmann,
Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, even Hitler (in two cameo appearances), and is
present at numerous well-known events—perhaps most notably the Battle of
Stalingrad, which is depicted here in one of the most vivid fictionalized war accounts
of recent memory.

Even so, readers may be puzzled at how distant the protagonist remains from the
nexus of evil throughout much of the novel. Aue is usually a few steps removed
from the actual killing. But this is not a sign of delicacy on Littell’s part—indeed,
there is little delicacy shown anywhere in this book—but rather a chilling reminder
that in this type of institutionalized murder it
hardly matters who actually pulls the
trigger. In only one instance is Aue given a gun and ordered to kill innocent people
on the spot, and even here he only delivers the final coup to those already mortally
wounded and dying. Yet Dr. Aue is the first to realize that his guilt is hardly
lessened by extenuating circumstances.

Littell manipulates a huge cast of characters, with various responsibilities,
attitudes, and degrees of involvement with the unfolding horror. More pointedly, he
gives his main character a
comparatively positive role—Aue struggles to improve the
conditions of the Jews, and move them out of the death camps and into factory
jobs. This forces him into frequent conflict with Eichmann and other hard-liners.

In the course of recounting this finely-grained narrative, Littell invites the reader to
parse and dissect different levels and degrees of guilt. But you can’t create
hierarchies of responsibility in this book, no matter how much Littell entices you into
doing so. He continually shows that how much bloodshed his characters
directly
cause is usually the result of mere chance. Aue would have done worse things if he
had been ordered to do so. In a similar manner, many of those who did the most
terrible things would, under slightly different circumstances, never have been
involved at all. Aue, at one point, suggests that such matters can only be dealt with
by applying a Greek concept of fate, in which you are still responsible for acts, even
if you did not comprehend (as in the case of Oedipus) the full nature of your
transgression, or did evil under some higher constraint. The
motive and state of
mind
, so important to modern law, collapse into mere metaphysical posturing by
comparison.

But Littell is playing sly games with his readers. This Sophoclean way of
conceptualizing guilt is also a dead-end, and turns genocide into some higher
tragedy outside of the control of human actors. The real chilling thrust of
The Kindly
Ones
derives from its in-depth portrayal of a finely-tuned organizational structure
aimed at killing on a massive scale. You cannot blame this on the
Erinyes (or the
Fates, as they are sometimes called)—the “kindly ones” in the book’s title. Human
beings constructed and perpetuated this terror, and their efficiency led to
something wicked far beyond the capability of an ancient Greek to comprehend.

It is impossible to summarize the manner in which Littell conveys the full
mindlessness of this poisonous bureaucracy. The novel is chockfull of promotions,
demotions, reorganizations, transfers, realignments, acronyms, task forces,
reports—institutional moves that the author makes vivid through his immense cast
of characters. A glossary and guide to German military hierarchy is included at the
back of the book, but it is hardly sufficient to assist the reader through the labyrinth
of organizations and titles that Littell throws out on virtually every page.

The theoretical underpinnings of bureaucracy were best articulated by a German
thinker a century ago. Max Weber described the nature of this phenomenon in a
manner largely free of the negative connotations we apply to it today. For him,
bureaucracy increased efficiency by removing the human element from
organizational processes. Substituting rules and guidelines for personal judgment
meant that you could run a big enterprise without requiring brilliant thinkers in
every role. As long as people followed the bureaucratic rules, everything would turn
out okay.

Or would it? Today, we are far less enthusiastic about the nature of bureaucracy.
The term is now seen as a synonym for inefficiency. Hardly anyone would hold up
bureaucratization as a positive force. But Littell uncovers a dark side that goes far
beyond anything a critic of organizational structures might address. Is it really a
step forward when the
human element is removed from decisions, or is this the
crack in the door through which the worst evils enter? One might think that this
area of inquiry were best left to the sociologists. Certainly this large-scale
immersion into organization politics represents an odd departure for a modern
novel, especially a war novel or a Holocaust novel. Yet I can’t help feeling that, in
this peculiar way, Jonathan Littell has cut to the heart of this historical tragedy to a
degree beyond anything I have encountered previously.
Great Books Guide
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell