In movies, there are certain things you can’t do. You can’t let dogs die. You can’t show a man’s penis. You can’t sleep. And you definitely can’t sympathise with a Nazi. In fiction, however, you can do whatever you want. Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones proves this axiom, repeatedly. Here is one book that will never be a movie. This is not just because its hero is a Nazi, but also because he’s an incestuous, matricidal, tree-shagging Nazi…who often quotes poetry. Since the novel was originally written in French, I suppose there is a chance that The Kindly Ones could be a French movie. But even Gaspar (Irreversible) Noe would find some of it worthy of a “Sacrebleu!”
Spanning WWII – from the fun-packed early years when Nazis massacred Slavs along the Volga, to the less-fun years when Slavs massacred Nazis – The Kindly Ones is the story of how a private-school boy from Alsace-Lorraine graduated from a scatology-obsessed E.R. Burroughs fanatic to a scatology-obsessed Hitler worshipper (or, as a wag might put it, from loving one piece of shit to another). Our hero, Max Aue, is a man who pals around with Eichmann, writes reports for Himmler and (although this part might be imagined) once bit Hitler on the nose. He also enjoys sleeping with his twin sister, and long-winded jeremiads against women and Jews.
Where to begin? Obviously, Max is a baddie. Even Hitler would have to admit that a guy who loves poop and incest this much is not an ideal friend. By the time, late in the novel, when Max completes a ten-page marathon of sexual deviance (starting with a candle up the bum and culminating in murder), you’ll be forgiven if you feel your empathy lapse. Jonathan Littell has gone to such lengths to make Max seem like a lunatic – and to have his hero profess, vociferously, “I am just like you!” – he is either very generous in his definition of “normal” or he has an ulterior motive. He wants, perhaps, to make war perverse. Quite deliberately, at the start, he has Max quote numbers of war-dead per country. Russia alone lost 20 million. Yet still, we find Max’s candle-hijinks more bizarre than mass slaughter.
There’s a similar feeling to the way Littell writes about incest. Obviously, it’s one of the few taboos we’ve got left. But it’s also a handy metaphor for the Aryan dream; where love is reserved for people who look like you, and hate is what you have for everyone else. Max’s “love” for his sister is a love of nullification, of eliminating everything that isn’t Max – or Max-like – from the world. He’d be murder on his birthday; not only for what he’d do with his birthday candles, but…who the hell would he invite apart from his sis? His sibling-only approach to romance shows us, queasily, just how few genes would be left in a true Nazi dating pool.
Jonathan Littell is a lot like Cormac McCarthy in his weary despair for the human race. If you’ve read Blood Meridian, you’ll know the drill: atavistic violence with a splash of ennui (e.g. “I remained alone with the dying hippopotamus”). Scarcely a page goes by without someone doing something hideous to somebody else; with no man rewarded, nor condemned. When Max goes to Stalingrad he sees a man, missing half a leg, use his stump like a spigot (i.e. the guy pours his own blood in a tin can…then he drinks it). This is normal. Rather than blood or history, it’s being murdered that unites people. Every character – Aryan or Slav – dies a miserable death.
You couldn’t make this book into a movie for umpteen reasons, but mostly because, at the end, surrounded by dead zoo animals, friends, policemen…Max loses. He loses his mind, he loses his war, and he loses his ability to comprehend. In playing connect-the-dots with scenes of murder, rape and incest, he comes undone. Introspection ceases to matter – given the weight of Max’s crimes – so his ramblings stop. Since the novel is told in hindsight, we know he survived the fall of Berlin. In a way, his survival proves the worst truth of war: we can live in horror. The perpetrators of genocide are husbands and fathers, as well as murderers. Though, as Max’s sister tells him, “You are a very heavy man for women to bear.”