Questioning the heartless cruelty that dogs human existence is at the core of a stirring narrative.
Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones is a translation of the French version published in 2006. Ever since its publication, it has achieved a monumental status both in France and the rest of the world with its grim World War II plot. It concerns the life of Maximilien Aue who unemotionally participates in the Nazi atrocities, and has been at Auschwitz and at Berlin during the Allied attacks. As Littell aptly puts it, his hero is a ‘roving X-Ray, a scanner', more of a machine than human to whom the landscape is as important as the gas chambers.
The novel is largely a reworking of the Orestia myth where after killing his mother Clytemnestra, Orestes is hounded by the Furies. At the end of the Greek play, the Furies are appeased and metamorphose into Eumenides which literally means ‘the oindly ones'. Orestes goes free and unpunished just as Aue, who, on the one hand, is an obedient slave of the genocide machinery, and on the other, becomes a reliable and an objective narrator of the Nazi crime, claiming that genocide paradoxically has behind it the impetus of “calm, collected'' ordinary people. Though addressed to his ‘human brothers' the book seeks answers to the reason why such heartless cruelty exists in the world. As Aue maintains: ‘Now of course the war is over. And we've learned our lesson, it won't happen again. But are you quite sure we've learned our lesson? Are you certain it won't happen again?' He goes on to argue: ‘There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time. Our quiet suburbs are crawling with pedophiles and maniacs, our homeless shelters are packed with raving megalomaniacs …and then the very same State that would without batting an eye send them to war crushes them like a blood-swollen mosquito. These sick men are nothing. But the ordinary men that make up the State— especially in unstable times — now there's the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, is you.'
Guilty of murder and matricide, he remains happily oblivious of his role, busy as he is in the concluding years of his life employed as a Director in a lace factory. Loss of memory of his past is interestingly in contrast with his clear memory of the Nazi madness and the horror of those years of destruction. He is located inside the story of Germany and yet becomes the clear headed analyst from the vantage point of an outsider. Aue's account of Germany war history takes up much of the book. On the other hand the story of his private life as a homosexual incestuously craving for anal sex with his twin sister never reaches any conclusive end.
Finally, the book leaves the reader with an open-ended world of questions to a phenomenon that has intrigued the world for decades: why did the very responsible and often learned Nazi supporters back such a terrible programme of extermination. Certainly, not because of the anti-Semitic ideology, nor a personal grouse against the Jews. Justice and responsibility are after all not all that unambiguously simple concepts to deal with. The theme of dichotomy of passion and indifference draws the reader simultaneously to understand the crime and to condemn it.
In doing his work, the war criminal does not hate the people he executes, nor is he taking revenge on them or killing them because they are a threat to him. As in the case of Aue, there is no revulsion, shame or guilt. Nevertheless he compares the American soldier in Vietnam with the Nazis: “he is ‘just like you,' and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. If you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure, which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years… I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs.… In a total war there can be no civilians, only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?”
The story derives its significance from the complex notions of justice, guilt and responsibility and takes us back to the controversy over Hannah Arendt's article “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963) on Adolf Eichmann's trial. The book becomes intellectually challenging when seen in terms of the sense of duty when the crime begins to take on another shade of the responsibility of action. Within the ambit of one's duty lies the question of behaviour according to the demands of the job in hand even if it means death for some. This is the central paradox of any discussion on the philosophical issue of ethics and duty.
Aue's involvement, like Eichmann's, in sending hundreds of Jews to the gas chambers does not give him any pangs of conscience, but is the result of a deep-seated desire to fulfill the demands of an assignment. Personal feelings or the sense of morality are not permitted to interfere with the sense of duty.
To Arendt, it was more a case of thoughtlessness, than a ‘monstrosity', an incapacity to ‘think from the point of view of others.' And Littell elaborates on this idea through a fictional work that is at once history as an eyewitness account as well as a critique of passive acceptance of a role that the state imposes on individuals who headlong turn into cogs in the wheels of the state apparatus.
On the human level the choices we make determine our destiny and define our ideological stance. Rules are too conventional and narrow in scope to cover the paradoxes and ironies of our existence.
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell, Chatto and Windus.