Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

What did we do for evil before the Nazis? They make the best screen villains, they have great uniforms and a perfect symbol, and serve nicely as the embodiment of absolute evil. They give us the perfect laboratory for our deepest fears and most desperately twisted desires. We can look down on them and their evil and silently enjoy the revelations of corrupting power as they are recounted in gruesome detail. We shouldn’t be surprised that they will probably inhabit our collective imaginations for generations to come, endlessly providing us with … God help us, entertainment. Anyone who has seen the movie “Stalags” will understand.

The latest installment in “Springtime for Hitler” is Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” an absolute doorstop of a book that recounts the “confessions” of a Nazi, Max Aue, who witnesses the chaos of the Eastern front and the collapse of Nazi Germany. He is unapologetically one of the workmen of the Final Solution.

When writing his monologue of a devil, “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis employed a style he termed “diabolical ventriloquism” - the narrative voice taking delight in the deadly, terrified of the good. He admitted later how effortless it was to write in this voice, given its gifts for easy comic and ironic commentary. It’s a familiar artistic technique to anyone who’s listened to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Norman Mailer’s last novel, “The Castle In the Forest,“ took this to another level when he gave us the voice of the demon overseeing the life of Adolf Hitler. Some of this same technique is on display in Littell’s work, which was translated from the French.

Aue begins by telling us that the war was only “a confirmation” of whatever evil was already there in him. It’s not for us that he’s writing, really not for any reason we might discern. We get the impression that Aue is a man who is concealing himself by revealing “everything” - that he is in fact revealing nothing. That even as we get the nauseating details of his dark career, we are being escorted away from the details of his soul like a motorist being hustled past the scene of a grisly car accident by a traffic cop.

The easy association made in some reviews of this book is with the notorious “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis, the first-person account of a Wall Street figure who may be a serial killer or may have an active imagination. Though his friends call him “the boy next door,” Patrick Bateman believes himself to be an “evil psychopath.” What people forget is that “American Psycho” wasn’t torture porn as much as yet another indictment of the “evil” of the materialistic 1980s. (A much longer discussion is probably in order about the subtlety of liberal political commentary.) But the comparison between Ellis and Littell misses a point, just as the violence in both Ellis’ and Littell’s works overshadows the point they seem to be trying to make.

Littell comes the closest early in his “confession,” when his narrator asks who is responsible for the deaths of the Holocaust? He gives a tiny moment - the euthanasia practiced by the Nazis - and asks if the nurses and doctors who checked out the doomed patients are guilty. They were merely doing their jobs, as was the man who turned the knob for the gas that killed them. As did the crews that cleaned up their bodies. As did the policeman who filled out their death certificates. Everything the Nazis did was legal, after all. So who are we to judge? Was the railroad man who directed the tracks to the death camps complicit? He was merely doing a job he’d done for hundreds of other trains to hundreds of destinations.

Littell, I’ve learned, is asking a question through his narrator about the nature of evil, or sin. He is judging it as the Greeks did, on the act that was done, rather than whether the perpetrators meant to do evil, or consciously knew they were doing evil. By making a Greek point, he unconsciously made a further point for the Christian concept of sin. In Isaiah, the prophet reminds us of the holiness of God and our utter inapproachability to God because even what we consider our goodness is a travesty, “filthy rags” in the sight of God. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that fulfilling the law outwardly is only part of our obligation to God. Our inner life matters just as much. Lust never acted on is just as worthy of divine justice as adultery.

In other words, the question of who is guilty is all consuming - we are all guilty, completely, of everything, at all times. When we act, when we don’t, when we think, when we feel, when we don’t feel.

Hannah Arendt’s famous portrait of Adolf Eichmann on trial recounts his last moments before the gallows, stating how he didn’t believe in an afterlife and then gave the men around him the assurance that they would all meet again. Arendt showed this as an example of the “banality of evil” - evil doesn’t need a raucous laugh of a malicious facial scar or a hook for a hand. It is human. It is normal. It is familiar. It’s who we are.

The idea of telling a story from the perspective of a Nazi may trouble us most of all because the Third Reich proved that, given the right circumstances, anyone can be transformed into a monster. The state can take an evil step and, to make its institutional conscience easier, encourage its citizens to take part in any new definition of right and wrong. “The Kindly Ones” takes a long route to showing its cost not on the victims, but those who carry out these historical eruptions of redefinition.

All of this says nothing about the literary merits of the novel itself. I would say I’m always skeptical of this sort of thing, because it seems calculated to attract an inordinate amount of attention to a novel and give it the borrowed clothes of philosophy, when it really seems an excuse to parade sex and violence before the reader like a huckster. It also indulges a portion of the psyche I think best left dormant. Max Aue may escape judgment from his literary creator, but we won’t from our Author.

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