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The Kindly Ones (2006)

by Jonathan Littell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,424864,285 (3.9)135
Fictional memoir of Dr. Max Aue, a former Nazi officer who survived the war and has reinvented himself, many years later, as a middle-class entrepreneur and family man in northern France. Max is an intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music. He is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat. Through the eyes of this cultivated yet monstrous man, we experience the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi genocide of the Jews in graphic, disturbingly precise detail from the dark and disturbing point of view of the executioner rather than the victim. During the period from June 1941 through April 1945, Max is posted to Poland, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus; he is present at the Battle of Stalingrad, at Auschwitz and Cracow; he visits occupied Paris and lives through the chaos of the final days of the Nazi regime in Berlin. Although Max is a totally imagined character, his world is peopled by real historical figures, such as Eichmann, Himmler, Goring, Speer, Heydrich, Hoss, and Hitler himself.… (more)
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» See also 135 mentions

English (51)  Dutch (13)  French (8)  Spanish (7)  Italian (2)  Catalan (1)  Czech (1)  Finnish (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (85)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
I could try to compose a lengthy review, but the essential points are in the product description. You don't need to know more than that to determine if this book is for you. Combined with the page count, it shouldn't be a difficult decision.

I will just say that it could have been better. Disc 29 was simply bad. I'm not sure if he was going for a William S. Burroughs homage. The historical details are startling, as expected. Length is a positive virtue in historical novels in some instances. The main character recounts a large variety of relevant experiences, but the many side characters are not developed. Not to mention there were dozens too many hook ups for the scenes to be aesthetic or important. In essence, the author was attempting, I think, to desensitize the reader, and the accumulation of atrocities was astounding. It has the major advantage over Chuck Palahniuk of being of historical interest, instead of an excessive display of bodily functions dissected and put on display for shock value. ( )
  LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |
"So what's the most atrocious thing you've seen? He waved his hand: "Man, of course!"

Firstly I should point out that this is a great lump of a book, my copy was just short of a 1000 pages of closely written prose with some paragraphs extending over several pages. Thus has some similarities with some of the great Russian novels.

This novel is a grim account following the course of the Second World War stretching from the horrors of the eastern Front to the diabolical massacres of the concentration camps and concludes in a wrecked Berlin as Russian forces enter the city to bring to an end Hitler's dream of a Aryan Empire. Controversially, the novel purports to be the memoirs of an ageing but unrepentant Nazi, Maximilian Aue, and is therefore history told from the executioners point of view rather than the victims.

Somewhat strangely this book was originally written in French by an American living in Barcelona but it is obvious that Littell has done his research. It contains an impressive amount of detail, not just about events but of more trivial details like the insignia on the German uniforms so is undoubtedly ambitious.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the book is that it is told in such a matter of fact tone meaning that much of the appeal of this book is that it provides a cold and dispassionate eye on savage mass-murder. But it is not without its flaws IMHO.

Firstly it feels unwieldy. Whilst some of the descriptions of the various atrocities and the madness within the Nazi hierarchy as Berlin begins to crumble are often excellent, however Littell is less convincing when it comes to the details of human behaviour. Max Aue is a member of the SS but what his role is exactly is less obvious. Before the war he was a jurist and is sent East to tackle the logistics of making the death camps more efficient. Whilst he doesn't personally take part in the most of the massacres he does little to prevent them either. He is assuredly a monster who performs monstrous acts. Consequently the book fails in its aim, stated in the first few lines, to demonstrate that we are all brothers, that the Nazi atrocities were not an aberration and that under similar circumstances we would act similarly.

"There are always reasons for what I did. Good reasons or bad reasons. I don't know, in any case human reasons. Those who killed are humans, just like those who are killed, that's what's terrible."

However, what I really disliked about this book was the long sections about his homosexuality, how he hated and was hated by his mother and in particular how he is tormented by incestuous lust for his twin sister which at times felt really excessive. During the Fall of Berlin, Aue buggers himself with a stick. I am sure that this must have some sort of meaning but I have absolutely no idea what it was meant to be.

Whatever its shortcomings, this is a serious attempt to explain the terrors of the Nazi regime and as such is worth tackling but be aware that it isn't an easy read but one at least that makes you sit up and think.

"Please, mein Herr, shoot the children cleanly." ( )
  PilgrimJess | Feb 9, 2020 |
Wow, what a book!
Around page 200 I switched to the audio version, because the physical book I had was a gift for someone else.
This was the first time (as far as I can remembers) That I read a book about WWII with this point of view, at least, with this much detail. As if the characters were actually living and as if I was part of the scenes.

It gave a disturbing look at things. It was cruel, explicit, also sexually and gave a good idea of how things worked at the German side of the war. What I liked best was the absence of a condemning know it all voice (at least I couldn't detect it).
Shifting to audio made the experience a different one. I didn't very much like the voice of the narrator (quite crucial when you have a book that's over 30 hrs of listening...) and sometimes I got annoyed, distracted a bit.
As you can probably detect from my text, I have difficulties trying to catch in words the thoughts and feelings that this book awoke in me. I don't think I'll try. I liked it, I hated it, it was a very interesting read and it left me dizzy.
I will just end with the first word I started with: Wow! ( )
1 vote BoekenTrol71 | May 9, 2019 |


“Please, mein Herr, shoot the children cleanly.”
― Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

Such a fiercely compelling novel, one of the most evil stories ever told. I had to listen to the audio book while taking my walks and let all the evil from the novel run down my legs and out the bottom of my feet; so much evil, thus my initial reluctance to write a review and highly recommend. However, the writing is excellent and the insights on human nature, history and culture numerous.

The first-person narrator starts his story by telling us nowadays his head begins to rage with the roar of a crematorium, that when he is at a bar he pictures someone entering with a shotgun and blasting away; that when he is watching a film in a theater he imagines a live grenade under the seats; that when he is among dozens of happy families on a pleasant Sunday afternoon attending a festival in the town square he sees a car filled with explosives blowing up, turning the festivities into unending carnage, blood and guts everywhere, groan, screams, pitiful cries filling the air and then a long harrowing silence and emptiness for the survivors.

Such are his thoughts since, as he also tells us, he is a veritable memory machine, unceasingly manufacturing memories whenever he has the time to think. Thus, he discovers when he once took a leave-of-absence from his responsibilities as manager of a lace factory, he can’t be left alone too long to think.

So, Little’s novel has Maximilien Aue recounting memories in the spaces between his normal round of work and family, recounting memories as a man in his mid-fifties currently living in 1970s France. And what is the focus of his memories? Back when he was a young man, an Untersturmführer, that is, a Nazi SS Lieutenant living through the bitter cold and mass killings at the Russian Front, the slaughter of the concentration camps, the murders he committed with both his own pistol or his own hands, the perversions of his personal life and violence of his family life, all recounted and reported in chilling detail, in a narrative voice unflinchingly calculating and as cold and as hard as steel, say the steel of an abandoned tank in subzero January. As a good number of readers have remarked once finishing this thousand pager, not an easy read, in many respects, a downright harrowing and horrifying read. Once read, never forgotten.

Rather than the killings, slaughter, perversions and other violations of humanity in Max’s waking life, I will synopsize four of the Nazi SS officer’s vivid, intense dreams:

ONE: Max is on a high cliff watching a procession of gondolas glide down a river, he clearly sees his gorgeous identical twin sister sitting cross-legged, her long flowing black hair falling over her perfectly shaped breasts. (Sidebar: in real life Max is sexual infatuated and romantically in love with Una, his identical twin sister). Max shouts her name many times. She raises her head and their eyes meet. At this point Max feels violent stomach cramps, undoes his pants and squats down, but instead of shit, real live bees, spiders and scorpions gush out his anus. He screams out and then turns his head and sees identical twin young boys staring at him in silence.

TWO: Max is gliding at different levels high up in the sky looking down, almost more like a camera than a human, looking down at a huge city set out on a uniform grid, seeing thousands and thousands of blue-eyed men and women and children, faceless, moving mechanically through birth, growth, adulthood and death creating a perfect equilibrium which reminds Max of what an ideal concentration camp would be like.

THREE: In a dark bedroom Max sees a tall beautiful woman in a long white dress. He recognizes the woman is his sister. She suffers uncontrollable convulsions and diarrhea, black shit oozes through her white dress causing Max to experience great disgust and nausea.

FOUR: Max exchanges cloths with his sister Una, he putting on her dress, she putting on his uniform. He sits in her chair at her dressing table and then Una carefully makes up his face, combing his hair, applying lipstick. Una then straps on an ebony phallus. After an intense session of intertwining like snakes, Max rests on the floor and says he is her sister and she is her brother to which Una replies that you are my sister and I am your brother.

Of course, we could envision what a psychoanalyst, either a Freudian or a Jungian or an analyst from any other school would make of Max’s dreams. Let me simply conclude by saying that anybody wishing to read this novel must be prepared for the many more brutal, cruel and murderous scenes of Max’s waking life, reminding me of the hell scenes of the artist Hieronymus Bosch . Again, one of the most evil tales ever told.

( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Crudo, forte e veritiero. Uno dei pochi libri in circolazione a parlare apertamente, a descrivere i minimi dettagli tutta la macchina di sterminio degli ebrei nella fredda russia. Un nazista, un soldato delle ss che si racconta. Tanta rabbia è scaturita da questa lettura. Non puoi fare ciò che hai fatto e non pentirti minimamente. ( )
  TheGirin | Sep 19, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Some of these ambitions are brilliantly realized; others much less so. But all of them make Littell’s book a serious one, deserving of serious treatment.

While some will denounce Littell’s cool-eyed authorial sympathy for Aue as “obscene”—and by “sympathy” I mean simply his attempt to comprehend the character—his project seems infinitely more valuable than the reflexive gesture of writing off all those millions of killers as “monsters” or “inhuman,” which allows us too easily to draw a solid line between “them” and “us.” [...] Aue is a human brother with whom we can sympathize (by which I mean, accept that he is not simply “inhuman”), or he is a sex-crazed, incestuous, homosexual, matricidal coprophage; but you can’t have your Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and eat it, too.
 
The novel’s gushing fans [...] seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, “The Kindly Ones” [...] is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.

The novel [...] reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.
 
Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history.

The Kindly Ones reveals something that is desperate and depressing but profoundly important, now as ever. Max Aue, the SS executioner, states the truth with typically brutal clarity: "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you."
added by Widsith | editThe Guardian, Jason Burke (Feb 22, 2009)
 
Littell has been very faithful to real events: his research is impressive [...] Littell, a Jew, rightly believes that the prime duty of a writer as well as a historian is to understand. He has succeeded in putting himself inside the tortured mind of his character.

The Kindly Ones never descends into the sort of faction that is the curse of contemporary history [...] a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come.
added by Widsith | editThe Times, Antony Beevor (Feb 20, 2009)
 
The novel is diabolically (and I use the word advisedly) clever. It is also impressive, not merely as an act of impersonation but perhaps above all for the fiendish diligence with which it is carried out. [...] This tour de force, which not everyone will welcome, outclasses all other fictions and will continue to do so for some time to come. No summary can do it justice.
added by Widsith | editThe Spectator, Anita Brookner (Nov 30, 2006)
 

» Add other authors (40 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jonathan Littellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Botto, MargheritaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fontana, LucioCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hernàndez, Pau JoanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.
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