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Hyväntahtoiset Jonathan Littell


Jonathan Littell

Published 2008
857 pages
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 About the Book 

Lugging this gigantic book around, from Omaha to Minneapolis to Dubai to Chicago back to Omaha, I began to question why I was reading it. Its nearly a thousand pages long- its poorly translated- it was apparently edited by a monkey dying of Ebola- it has paragraphs that run on for pages, and pages, and pages- for some reason, there is no indentation for dialogue, so youre left guessing which indistinguishable character is saying which facile/stilted/cliched/boring thing- the translation is imprecise- and the overuse of the semicolon is rampant.In the end, the unasked question - why are you reading this? - is answered by a phrase provided me by the US Supreme Courts case-law on obscenity: it appealed to my prurient interest.The Kindly Ones is an ambitious wreck. Its a hot mess, but with aspirations. (Its opening line - Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened - smacks of Homer). Indeed, right up until the penultimate chapter, I was halfway enjoying it. The novel, told in first person my SS officer Maximilien Aue, attempts to encompass the whole horror of the Holocaust. Like a sadistic, bloodstained Forrest Gump, Aue bounces from einsatz aktions in the Caucuses (there is a grim depiction of the massacre at Babi Yar), to the winter hell of Stalingrad, to the concentration camps of Auschwitz, and finally to Hitlers bunker and the twilight of the gods.I heard of this book by way of its controversy. It was a big hit in France, which should forever lay to rest any lingering belief that the French know anything about art. Here in America, it was severely panned by none other than Michiko Kakutani. When she described its unsavory elements - murder, incest, sodomy, unrelenting gore - I knew I had to purchase this work immediately.At first, through about 850 pages, I thought the controversy was a whole lot of nothing. Yes, there were some graphic passages, especially dealing with the einsatzkommandos slaughtering thousands of Jews and other undesirables by firing squad. Yet this is what good historical fiction does: it takes us to that place in time. In this instance, that place and time is unimaginably dark, but that doesnt mean that some light shouldnt be shed. I thought the recreation of the Belorussian slaughter was powerful. I also thought there were some clever moments, as when Aue meets a Caucasian peasant who has been gifted with the ability to have all memories at once. The peasant leads Aue to the mountain summit where Aue is supposed to kill him. For the most part, though, the book was - and I hate to say the word - dull. Hannah Arendt was right: evil is banal.The book is filled with non-characters. There are names - a veritable whos who of Nazi Germany, with cameos by Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, Speer, Eichmann, and Mengele. For the most part, though, they remain names, an undifferentiated mass. There is an fascinating bit, here and there, such as a dinner party with Eichmann, or a grouse hunt with Speer, but they are lost in a sea of never-ending crap prose. There are lengthy, turgid passages on Caucasian languages, and a dense, meandering conversation about the similarities between Bolshevism and Fascism. Also, there are endless mentions of poop. Its smell- Aues need to evacuate his bowels- detailed descriptions of said evacuation, etc. Ive never been exposed to such scatological descriptions, and hope never to be again.Still, nothing too loopy. Sure, Aue is in love with his twin sister, with whom he had an incestuous relationship, but this dark angle is not dwelt upon (in relation to how much Aue dwells on poop). And he also may-or-may-not have killed his mother, but this is just soap-drama. I started to think that Michiko might have been wrong. Where is the sick, depraved stuff that lured me in (and just to editorialize a little, I feel that many of these book reviews are very regressive when it comes to sexuality- just because Aue is a homosexual does not make him deviant- there is an underlying whiff of homophobia in many of the pans Ive read).Then, at page 865, I came to that chapter. Suffice it to say, it involves a lot of auto-asphyxiation, masturbation, and defecation. I couldve done without that. Moreover, this all occurs while the Russians are encircling Berlin. With the whole nation collapses, Aue manages to get vacation time so he can spend some time with himself. That stretches credulity.In fact, the whole endgame of this enormous book is terrible. Everything falls apart. There isnt a single believable instance (Anthony Beevor, Im surprised at you for suggesting this book!) Its not just that Aue is led to Hitlers bunker and does something completely ridiculous, its that in the final pages, all the main characters somehow meet each other. Really? The Russians are pouring into the city, bombs are bursting, mortar rounds are exploding, buildings are burning, bullets are whistling, yet everyone manages to come together for a final, bloody denouement.This utter collapse - the same malady affecting The Dark Knight - really ruined things for me. For as I said, up till that time, this book has a lot of interesting things to offer. There are vivid, nightmarish descriptions that would make Dante proud. There is a strangely beautiful, ghastly scene in which Aue goes swimming in the Volga outside Stalingrad:The swift current created whirlpools that soon carried me away under the ice. All kinds of things were passing by me, which I could clearly make out in this green water: horses whose feet the current was moving as if they were galloping, fat and almost flat fish, bottom-feeders, Russian corpses with swollen faces, entwined in their curious brown capes...Above me, the ice formed an opaque screen, but the air lasted in my lungs, I wasnt worried and kept swimming, passing sunken barges full of handsome young men sitting in rows, their weapons still in their hands, little fish threading through their hair agitated by the current. Then slowly in front of me the water grew lighter, columns of green light plunged down from holes in the ice, became a forest, then melded into each other as the blocks of ice drifted farther apart.There are parts of this book that reminded me of the sweep of Herman Wouks The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, if those great books had been written by Cormac McCarthy. Then there are parts of this book that remind me of Team America: World Police.Its an interesting book, and I mean interesting in the Confucian sense. There are incredible moments, some of which Ive mentioned, others I can only note in passing, such as gripping scenes set during the bombing of Berlin. There are moments of pure inanity, as Aue - a self-righteous, pretentious, preening gasbag - holds forth on various topics in his grating, solipsistic manner (the tragedy of Aue not being able to fornicate with his sister tends to pale next to the murder of 6 million Jews). Then there are moments of sheer weirdness, such as a dream sequence in which Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, masturbates next to Aues bed. I dont know why, though perhaps this could be a thesis topic if I ever go for my PhD in English.I guess the best praise I can give this book is that it got a reaction from me. Which aint nothing.