The Kindly Ones — Les Bienveillantes if you read it in French, which I didn’t — is probably the most brilliant piece of trash fiction ever written. I dedicated most of the summer to Jonathan Littell’s much-praised, internationally bestselling blockbuster and loved almost every minute of it.
But it’s definitely not as great as Le Figaro thinks: ‘A monument of contemporary literature.’ Nor Le Monde: ‘A staggering triumph.’ Nor yet Anita Brookner who claimed, in The Spectator no less, that it is not only ‘diabolically (and I use the word advisedly) clever’ but also a ‘tour de force’ which ‘outclasses all other fictions [this year] and will continue to do so for some time to come.’
Note that two out of three of those rave reviews are French. There are reasons for that. The first is that the French are always going to be hot on the idea of an American who decides to write in their language rather than his own. And the second is that it’s very long. Über-pretentiously long. The story I heard is that Littell’s French editor tried to get him to slim it down a bit and that Littell refused. And rightly so, as another editor at the same publisher cynically told a friend of mine: ‘If it had been half the length, it would never have sold anywhere near as many as 800,000 copies in France.’
But just because it’s 984 pages doesn’t make it the ‘new War and Peace’ (as Le Nouvel Observateur has it). Being concerned with the wartime adventures of just one SS officer, it hasn’t nearly Tolstoy’s range or breadth. There are places — the ones involving the ethnologist, for example — where you do feel slightly that you’re being served up raw, indigestible gobbets of the author’s evidently diligent research. And the central premise is flawed. (Don’t read the next pars if you don’t want to know what happens.)
If, as the book invites us to believe at the beginning, brutal Nazi atrocities are something any of us could have committed had we lived in the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong regime, then why make the narrator a matricidal homosexual serial killer who only ever found true love in an incestuous relationship with his sister and fantasises about being sodomised by eight-armed green-skinned Martians? Doesn’t make him exactly Everyman, does it?
Towards the end, Littell seems to admit this to himself when he gives up even trying to be Tolstoy (or Vasily Grossman) and comes over Thomas L. Harris meets Ian Fleming meets Lord of the Flies. There are two policemen who appear to have strayed from some sort of early Tom Stoppard comedy; there’s a bloated, flatulent rich industrialist in an armoured train flanked by hot-babe blonde SS women and stroking a cat; there’s a superfluity of dream sequences which you skip because you think ‘well if it’s not actually happening why should I care? It’s not like I don’t know already the guy dreaming this stuff is weird’.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The book is still a magnificent achievement, whose qualities vastly outweigh its flaws. The Stalingrad scenes are hallucinogenically intense; as too are Littell’s great set-piece descriptions of the early Einsatzgruppe atrocities like the Babi Yar massacre. You’ve probably never tried putting yourself in the shoes of a young SD officer who, whether he likes it or not, has the job of supervising the extermination and burial of village after village of (all too human-looking) men, women and children. Littell does the job for you with a verisimilitude — at once nauseating, heartbreaking and intensely disturbing — which will haunt your nightmares for months.
(to read more, click here)
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