The Kindly Ones – Jonathan Littell

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Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

Winner of 2006 Prix Goncourt and the grand prix du roman of Académie française, Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award 2009, 2010 Best Translated Book Award: Fiction Longlist, 2010 long list Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

The Kindly Ones is one of the most controversial books written in recent years. The book is a fictional biography of Max Aue, a senior SS officer, present during the Holocaust.  His job is to compile recommendations for future Nazi policy and so he travels to see the execution of the Jews, the German front line and finally the concentration camps. The fictional characters are weaved together with real people like Göring, Speer and Hitler; producing a well researched, compelling version of WWII.

The Kindly Ones is the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. I have read a few individual scenes in books like A Fine Balance or Fugitive Pieces that almost equal the horror of the milder sections in this book, but the descriptions of the Holocaust were so intense and prolonged that I found this book very hard to read. There were times when I could only read a page or two before having to put the book down and do something else. Sometimes even that wasn’t enough and so I started skim reading sections. I found this didn’t help much as I was still painfully aware of what was happening, so I reverted to the slow, painful pace I had started with.

The whole book is like driving past a car crash – you know you shouldn’t look, but you do anyway  –  unable to resist the temptation to see how bad things really are.  I was gripped throughout, an amazing feat for a book so long. The prose is easy to read, but I did get a bit confused by some of the German military terms (most of which are explained in the back, but as I don’t really understand the British equivalent that didn’t help much!).

I expected the plot to emphasize the fact that the people involved in these terrible events had no choice in the matter – that it was basically ‘do or die’.

The man posted to a concentration camp, like a man assigned to an Einsatzkommando or a police battalion, most of the time doesn’t reason any differently: he knows that his free will has nothing to do with it, and that chance alone makes him a killer rather than a hero, or a dead man.

I was therefore surprised to see many opportunities for Max Aue to avoid ending up on the path he took. Initially I wondered why the book was written in this way, but then I realised how clever and realistic it was. The events leading up to the atrocities are obvious with hindsight, but to the people involved each step was so small that they were unaware of the final consequences. Many questioned the actions and were given what seemed to them to be reasonable justifications. For this book to change the way I view the Holocaust is an incredible achievement.

The Kindly Ones also contained many poignant scenes. I was particularly touched by this passage:

“I started sobbing: the tears froze on my face, I wept for my childhood, for a time when snow was a pleasure that knew no end, when a city was a wonderful space to live in, and when a forest was not yet a convenient place to kill people.”

Overall I’d describe this book as a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the Holocaust, but the length and graphic descriptions of human suffering mean that most people should approach this book with caution. I will remember this book for the rest of my life and although I sometimes wish I could erase some scenes from my memory, on the whole I think it is helpful to remember that these events happened.

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40 Comments

  1. Sandy says:

    You know about my little obsession with all things WWII, so I will most likely need to read this. It does remind me of “Into That Darkness” which changed many of my views on life. I find it disturbing but fascinating to try to understand why seemingly “normal” people…mothers and fathers…allowed themselves to be pulled over to the dark side. It is a matter of tiny little steps, too gradual to notice almost. It is tough reading, but compelling. Nice review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I have Into that Darkness on my wishlist and hope to read it at some point in the near future (although I think I need a short break before reading anything as disturbing as this!)

      It would be intersting to compare the two books – I hope you decide to read this soon, so that you can let me know if they draw similar conclusions to the subject.

  2. Iris says:

    I think it is important to remember the Holocaust and it looks like this book might achieve this in a manner that has a lot of impact. Even though that could mean a lot to many people, I think that is exactly the reason I should avoid it for the time being. I am easily emotionally caught up in a story and I do not want to make myself experience such extremes at the moment. Thus, even though this sounds like it’d make for a good read, I know I’d better avoid this one.

    Good review nonetheless!

    1. Jackie says:

      Iris, I understand the need to avoid books like this – it really is disturbing so I think you need to be in the right frame of mind to attempt it. I’m going to stick to happier books for a while!

  3. Kristen says:

    It sounds like you thought this was really a tour de force. Even so, I don’t know that I could stomach it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kristen, It does require a strong stomach! No eating, drinking or sleeping after this one!

  4. This sounds fascinating. I don’t tend to like WWII books unless they particularly stand out as being different or adding something new to the mix. It sounds like this one definitely does!

    1. Jackie says:

      Novel Insights, I tend to find that WWII novels tend to repeat the same things, but this one if different from the rest – there is no way you’d get the plot of this mixed with another book!

  5. Elise says:

    This book is one I aim to read this year. I am still approaching it with a bit of trepidation and feel that more so after this review. I will definitely read it, but carefully!! Thank you for the review :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Elise, I hope you ‘enjoy’ reading this book. I think that in the end it is worth the effort.

  6. I go through phases in which I can and I absolutely cannot read Holocaust books (and other atrocity books). One doesn’t want to be an ostrich, and yet one definitely has to be ready for the onrush of unhappy emotions inspired by such books! I appreciate your nice review.

    1. Jackie says:

      rhapsodyinbooks, I often find it hard to balance being kept informed of terrible things and keeping a positive outlook on life. At least reading books like this makes me realise how lucky I am.

  7. Steph says:

    I’m so glad you were able to finish this one and post your thoughts on it! I remember when you first said you were going to tackle it that I was intrigued by the premise of the book, but wary of its length. Based on what you’ve said, I feel like this is probably such a powerful and important book that I’d be able to overcome my chunksterphobia and read it. I don’t have a particular love for Holocaust fiction (because I feel there’s so much of it these day that the market is oversaturated), but I will always make time for a well-written book!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I’m not afraid of chunksters, but I did have a fear of reading this book. I am relieved to have finished it and to know I don’t have to go through the experience again! I think you would appreciate reading this book, but make sure you set aside a lot of time!

  8. Wendy says:

    Jackie, thank you for such a thoughtful review of this book. I’ve read several reviews (by bloggers and print reviewers alike) and I have to say that I don’t think this is a book I want to read. I wonder sometimes if such graphic violence in a book is a bit gratuitous. I don’t shy away from graphic scenes in books, but an entire book of them I don’t think I could stomach.

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, I think that violence can sometimes be gratuitous, but in this case I thought it was justified. Each individual situation was described once – just enough so that you understood what was happening. The scenes weren’t repeated over and over again (which in many ways made it worse, as you are continually hearing the different ways in which people on both sides of the battle were suffering) and there were minimal details about the injuries (eg his arm was blown off, instead of graphic descriptions of blood pumping and visible bones etc). In fact the lack of gruesome detail often made it worse to read, as it made me picture the people as human beings instead of pieces of meat. A whole book of these graphic scenes is hard to stomach though, so I understand the reasons for avoiding it.

  9. Amy says:

    This book does sound horrifying to read, but also necessary. I hadn’t thought about the point you make that hindsight is 20/20 so even if he had chances to stop or change things, you wouldn’t necessarily realize what was coming. I want to read this book for that alone!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, Everything is simpler with hindsight! I hope that you appreciate this book if you decide to read it and look forward to seeing what you make of it.

  10. She says:

    I have wanted to read this, but it does sound quite disturbing. :( I think I actually took it out from the library without realizing that it is quite the chunkster. I ended up not having enough time to start it before it was due back. I think I will have to purchase it and live in a cave for a week while reading it. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Jackie says:

      She, I don’t advise caves – I recommend reading this in the open on a bright sunny day!!

      I think buying this book is a good idea – I felt under a lot of pressure to read it before it was due back at the library – I made it to the end before it was due back, but luckily had 6 weeks to read it. Good luck!

  11. Kathleen says:

    As gut wrenching as this sounds, I do want to read it. I just requested it from my library.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, Please come back and let me know your thoughts on it. Good luck!

  12. mee says:

    Very tempting, but like Steph I found the market is over-saturated with holocaust fiction so I’m not sure if this will change my mind.
    Good to hear it’s a great book for you.

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, I don’t think I’ll be reading another Holocaust book for a while – I think I’ve had enough for one year!

  13. Jenners says:

    I don’t know if I WANT to read this book … but perhaps feel that I SHOULD.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I know what you mean. I didn’t really want to read it as I knew it would be disturbing, but it kept calling to me – I just felt I should know what was inside.

  14. Carol says:

    Hi Jackie
    This book is definitely not for me. These things really happened and I find all wars so sad and tragic that I feel I do not need to read about it Even the glowing reviews could not persuade me.
    There are too many other books out there that i really want to read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carol, I totally understand – hopefully I’ll read some happier books that will appeal to you soon!

  15. christina says:

    I do want to read this book, but must admit, I’m intimidated by the length!

    1. Jackie says:

      christina, It is very long! The type is tiny so it is longer than it looks. I found reading small sections each day at the same time a reading other books worked for me. I read roughly 25 pages a day for 6 weeks and so it beacame quite manageable.

  16. Wow. I’ve wanted to read this one for a long time, but now I’m glad to know to proceed with caution. It sounds wonderful and heart-wrenching. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I hope you decide to pick it up at some point so I can discuss it with you.

  17. Jeanne says:

    I like having read books like this one; I think it’s a good thing to get some inkling of how people can make little choices–or even refuse to choose–and have that add up.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeanne, I find it really interesting to think about what I’d do in various situations. I’m just so glad I’m not faced withthose decisions in real life.

  18. I have this on the TBR and will be taking it away when I have my week in the sun in June as think if read it currently it could really depress and shock me (in a good way if you know what I mean), I am sure it will in the sunshine but hopefully the sunshine will balance it out!

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I do think reading this in the sun is a good idea. Bizarre as it may sound to some this would be my ideal beach read.

  19. Violet says:

    I’m currently reading this, and finding it a very rewarding experience. It’s obviously well-researched, and although it’s fiction, has an authentic feel to it. For anyone interested in World War II history, I’d say this is a must-read.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, It is great to hear that you think it is a must-read too. I loved reading your initial thoughts and look forward to seeing how your opinions change as the book progresses.

  20. it’s a difficult journey to go through but it’s utterly worth it

    the last part is extraordinary written, a really dark hallucinatory feel to it and you can really sense that this is the end plus the end is great

    i wouldn’t be in any hurry to read it again but i’m glad i did

  21. Sakura says:

    Sounds like it left a very big impression on you. I think it’s important to read books like these once in a while (all the time would probably depress me.) I’m still recovering from A Find Balance which I read many years ago, but I think I’ll try this one day.

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