Richard Derus's Reviews > The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
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Dec 18, 2011

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Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: "Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." So begins the chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France.

Max is an intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music. He is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat. Through the eyes of this cultivated yet monstrous man, we experience in disturbingly precise detail the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. During the period from June 1941 through April 1945, Max is posted to Poland, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus; he is present at the Battle of Stalingrad and at Auschwitz; and he lives through the chaos of the final days of the Nazi regime in Berlin. Although Max is a totally imagined character, his world is peopled by real historical figures, such as Eichmann, Himmler, Goring, Speer, Heyrich, Hoss, and Hitler himself.

A supreme historical epic and a haunting work of fiction, Jonathan Littell's masterpiece is intense, hallucinatory, and utterly original. Published to impressive critical acclaim in France in 2006, it went on to win the Prix Goncourt, that country's most prestigious literary award, and sparked a broad range of responses and questions from readers: How does fiction deal with the nature of human evil? How should a novel encompass the Holocaust? At what point do history and fiction come together and where do they separate?

A provocative and controversial work of literature, The Kindly Ones is a morally challenging read; it holds up a mirror to humanity--and the reader cannot look away.

My Review: The Kindly Ones is more than a morally challenging read; it makes me feel deeply unclean. I don't have any idea what I would do, in the same circumstances as the author sets his protagonist into, but I suspect I would have been this protagonist had the same things happened to me at the same ages. Now...well, a 50-year-old is a different creature than a 22-year-old, no matter that us 50+ers want to think otherwise.

I abandoned this book, a library 14-day checkout, at p364. Ivan and Max (who is our protagonist) are scuttling around looking for Croats, and I ran aground when "Feldgendarmen" and "ACHTUNG! MINIEN!" occurred in close proximity. I just could not endure one more moment of German military terminology and I dislike the German language with sincere fervor, and then there is the slickly sickly slimy Max, with whom I can't bear to spend one more eyeblink; but good lord people, the amount I've already read would be a novel by itself!

As anyone who's ever read one of my reviews knows, I don't do book reports. The events of this book aren't in any way a surprise to you if you've been awake in the past year. I can say, though, that anyone who wants to deny the existence of a Holocaust would do well to read this novel. It feels like the events could not possibly be true. No one could live through this, perpetrator or not, and face life as a sane being ever again. So far as I am aware, the German nation did not have a huge insanity problem after WWII, so ipso facto there was no Holocaust!

Littell's story shows how well he understands the history of the (factual) Holocaust, and his choice of a protagonist shows how well he understands human nature and its strengths. It's a deeply disturbing book for that reason alone. That a man could imagine this character, could write about him in his own voice and with clarity, precision, and artistry, is unsettling to my vision of authors as refiners of reality into truth.

If Truth can contain this, there is no safe place anywhere.

And there isn't.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 11, 2009 – Finished Reading
December 18, 2011 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto Gosh. This sounds devastating.


Richard Derus I found it to be so. It was a wrenching experience to read, and of course, the plot isn't a mystery.


message 3: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm I actually plowed through this to the end. I never knew what to think about it but I never forgot it either. Reading your comments helps me to finally put it to rest.


Richard Derus Gary wrote: "I actually plowed through this to the end. I never knew what to think about it but I never forgot it either. Reading your comments helps me to finally put it to rest."

"Put it to rest" is the best way I've ever heard to describe reaction to the book. It's felt to me, at times, like I was hag-ridden by the book, it pops into my head with its bland and banal main character doing unspeakable things.


message 5: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm And who among us wants to be hag-ridden by a book? To this day I don't know how-or why- I finished it. I guess my OCD just kept me reading on ad nauseum ad infinitum.


Richard Derus I surely couldn't! Never been more grateful for OCDlessness than I am now.


message 7: by Nancy (new)

Nancy 984 pages? Really?


Richard Derus Nancy wrote: "984 pages? Really?"

Really. And a LOT of those pages have long, long, long German words on them. Many painful and unpleasant things happened to many people on them, too.

On the whole, just not for me.


message 9: by Nancy (new)

Nancy I'm sure it's not for me either. German can be beautiful, especially when it's sung, but the only language that can manage to sound sexy even when people are yelling at each other is Italian.


Simon finish it


Richard Derus Simon wrote: "finish it"

No.


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