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Jonathan Littell: Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones)

I am fairly certain that this is the only US book on this site originally written in French. This fact alone caused a certain amount of furore in France, the French not taking kindly to foreigners messing with their language, particularly when the foreigner is American and then goes on to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt, never before won by someone whose mother tongue is English. The book was attacked from all sides, so much so that Paul-Éric Blanrue (link in French) even wrote a book about it, wittily called Les Malveillantes as well as a 120 page critique of Littell’s French. To his credit Alain Mabanckou defended Littell on this point (link in French only). I would add that there are quite a few contemporary French writers who also use anglicisms. In short, it doesn’t matter. Of course, the second issue is that Littell points out – as others have done before him – that the French collaborated with the Germans and, more particularly, actively participated in the round-up of Jews, who were then sent off to concentration camps. Naturally enough the French don’t like being reminded of this.

Before starting on the novel, let’s deal with the title. It comes from the Greek Eumenides, which was generally believed to be a euphemism for the Erinyes (the Furies) who were mythological creatures who punished humans who broke the laws of nature, including matricide and patricide. As they were female, the French term is in the feminine. One of the sub-plots of this book suggests that the narrator may have killed his mother and stepfather and he is pursued by two police officers for this almost to the end of the book. Of course, his crimes (and those of his fellows) are far greater than the deaths of just two people. The main theme of the book is the concept of the banality of evil, a term coined by the Jewish-German political theorist, Hannah Arendt, following the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. (Eichmann, incidentally, is a key character in this book.)

The book is a memoir by the (fictitious) Maximilian Aue. Aue had a German father and a French mother. He grew up in both countries and therefore spoke both languages fluently. After the war, as he tells us at the beginning, he was able to escape Germany and punishment for his crimes, by assuming a French identity and opening a lace factory. This is why his memoir is in French. Though we learn something of his early life and background (twin sister, with whom he has an incestuous affair, father left and disappeared when he was still young, mother remarried and family lived in Antibes), most of the book is about his activities in the SS from the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union up to the very last days of the war. Aue is part of a unit in the SS, whose task, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, is to round up dangerous elements and destroy them. The dangerous elements include Gypsies, partisans, communists, Soviet officials, (particularly later on) Slavs in general and, in particular, Jews. Various units round up these undesirables and generally kill them, though some are imprisoned and used as slave labour. The picture changes when the Germans take Kiev as dealing with the undesirable elements in a large city is more difficult, particularly as the departing Soviets have left booby traps all over the city. Eventually, the Germans trick the Jews into thinking they are going to be exiled and steer them into a ravine, where they are systematically slaughtered. This is the event that we now know as Babi Yar. (Small aside: English writer D M Thomas‘ novel The White Novel – a novel generally agreed, at least in Britain, to be of low standard, strongly features Babi Yar, from the victims’ perspective, though it seems that Thomas stole the Babi Yar section from Andrei Kuznetsov.)

The book follows Aue in the Soviet invasion. After a dispute with a superior officer, he finds himself transferred to the SS during the last part of the Battle of Stalingrad. He sees the horrors there and only just escapes with his life. Indeed, he is so badly wounded that he spends a long time recuperating, mainly in Crimea. He eventually lands up in a desk job in Berlin, working for Himmler and working with Adolf Eichmann. He works on several projects as the war starts falling apart for the Germans and Berlin is regularly bombed. His final project involves the closure of Auschwitz. During this period we also see the activities of Himmler, Eichmann and other senior Nazis and even see Hitler right at the end. The plot is, of course, far, far more complex than I have outlined.

However, what makes this book so special and, indeed, makes it the leading candidate so far for best novel of the 21st century, is the superb treatment of the issue of the banality of evil. We certainly do see brutality. Babi Yar is the obvious example but we see both isolated incidents throughout the book, particularly during the invasion of Ukraine as well as bigger incidents at the end, mainly during the evacuation of Auschwitz. However, despite these, the brutality is relatively low key. Littell, through Aue, skilfully shows that the Holocaust was treated as a bureaucratic exercise or, if you will, military men carrying out orders without thinking about what these orders meant. What is particularly frightening is that Aue is an intelligent, educated, rational man. We might condemn his incestuous relationship with his sister or his casual gay sex (strictly illegal in Nazi Germany) but, in general, we can not only recognise him as a man we might know but even one we could identify with. He reads Euripides and Kierkegaard and when in the Caucasus, he visits Lermontov‘s grave. He goes hunting with Albert Speer but refuses to hunt, saying that he doesn’t like killing! Indeed, these ironical touches are scattered throughout the book. For example, while the Nazis are slaughtering the Jews, a canteen is brought down for the slaughterers as this is a long process. At first it is deemed too insensitive but then they change their mind, realising that even mass murderers have to be fed. The same day, the Jews have to strip down to their underwear (their clothes are reused) even though it is bitterly cold. Immediately afterwards Aue himself complains of the cold and wishes he had brought his pullover.

We follow Aue’s career up the ranks and we also follow the careers of several other leading Nazis. In the latter part of the book, Himmler is his boss and is someone who seems eminently sensible and rational – till you stop to think what he is being eminently sensible and rational about. Like Aue (but unlike Eichmann), he sees the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, etc. as a work force for the Nazis as most of the other able-bodied German men are in the armed forces. Indeed, one of the tensions in the book is between Himmler and Aue who want more workers and Eichmann who wants to meet his targets, which are how many Jews are killed per country. He praises the French for willingly handing over their Jews (one reason the book was undoubtedly not liked in France) while berating the Italians, Dutch and others for not doing so. These discussions go on till the very end, even as Germany is falling apart and Berlin is virtually bombed out of existence. It is a civil service, it is the will of the Führer, therefore it must be done.

I could add numerous examples of Littell’s skill in showing the ironies of the situation and showing the banality of evil. I could even criticise some of the book’s weaker points such as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cops who chase Aue (also till virtually the last page) over the murder of his mother and stepfather. But the overall conclusion is that this is the best novel of the 21st century to date, by far.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Gallimard
First English translation Harper 2009