Finally finished Jonathan Littel’s THE KINDLY ONES last night, and at 1 a.m (but needed to be in bed by 11 – often happens). Only taken me 8 years to get to this novel. It received a controversial reception at the time of publication, but I agree with the critics that hailed the novel a masterpiece, though one filled with such belief-defying horror, I often found that reading 50 pages in one sitting was enough. 1000 pages of tiny font on royal hardback pages too: took me a month to read it with the care and patience that the book deserves. To my taste it’s a monumental work of literature, and horror in fact, much like The Road and 1984 are.The Kindly Ones is primarily an epic story of Dr Max Aue in WW2; a fictional autobiography of an intellectual and intelligence officer of the SS, mostly serving in the “East”. It’s a testament to the very worst of mankind and the worst in mankind’s potential, from the murdering sadists of the Einsatzgruppe to the complicity of the ordinary. No matter how much non-fiction I’ve read about war, it can become more tangible and vivid and awful when the inner life of the participants are explored by great writers of fiction.
Uncannily, a book of our time too – the action in this story only happened 70 odd years ago, in Europe. The danger of forgetting that resonates here. So this novel can serve as recognition of how hideous we have the potential to be, in many ways, in conditions favourable to disconnecting, or repressing, reason and our humanity.
A quote from Aue on the conflict between Germany and the USSR, in which 26.6 million died between June 1941 and May 1945. This comes at the book’s beginning:
“Thus for an overall total in my field of activities we have an average of 572,043 dead per month, 131,410 dead per week, 18,772 dead per day, 782 dead per hour, and 13.04 dead per minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year of the given period, which is, as you will recall, 3 years, 10 months, 16 days, 20 hours, and 1 minute . . . If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also no one comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think that you are, that’s just where the danger begins. We like to contrast the State, totalitarian or not, with the ordinary man, that insect or trembling reed. But then we forget the State is made up of individuals, all more or less ordinary, each one with his life, his story, the sequence of accidents that led him one day to end up on the right side of the gun or the sheet of paper while others ended up on the wrong side. This path is rarely the result of any choice, or even of personal predilection.”
It made my head hurt, heart break, and it infected my dreams. How often does a book do that?