2009 Books in Translation Chunkster Historical Fiction Other Prizes Recommended books

The Kindly Ones – Jonathan Littell


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.

Do you want to read The Kindly Ones?

1700s Books in Translation Classics

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

Translated from the French by Helen Constantine

Dangerous Liaisons was the latest choice for my book-group and I was very pleased to be forced to read it, as there was no way I’d have picked it up myself!

First published in 1782, the book is written entirely in the form of letters between members of the French aristocracy. The two central characters are former lovers who enjoy seducing others; through increasingly deceptive letters they try to win the attention of a married woman and an innocent convent girl.

Unfortunately the book annoyed me from the beginning. I have never been a fan of reading about privileged people who have nothing to worry about other than their own appearance – they are so self absorbed that I just want to slap them! The characters in this book were some of the worst I’ve come across, spending their entire day writing letters to each other and gossiping. This just holds no interest for me. 

You say she is plainly dressed; and so she is: all ornament spoils her; everything that hides her detracts from her beauty; in the abandonment of déshabillé she is truly ravishing.

Their soppy proclamations of love for each other irritated me and I just didn’t care what happened to any of them.

The letter format also meant that there were no descriptions, depriving the book of period atmosphere. It could easily have been set in a different country, or even time period, and little would change. Some would say this was a plus-point, but I would have loved to know what their surroundings looked like and to imagine the sounds and smells of the city.

I waded through 177 pages of increasingly dull conversations before I finally decided that I my time would be better spent reading a book that I enjoy – I gave up and read the plot summary on wikipedia!

I was the only member of the book group to hate it –  the 7 other people present loved the wicked characters and their manipulative ways. I appear to be in the minority on this one, so please don’t avoid the book on my account.


Have you read Dangerous Liaisons?

Did you enjoy it?

2008 Books in Translation

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I had seen nothing but praise for this book in the blogging world, so was keen to find out why everyone raves about it.  Unfortunately the book failed to live up to expectations, so I am going explain why I just didn’t get this book at all.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris and focuses on Renée, a concierge with a secret passion for culture. Living in the same apartment building is Paloma, a suicidal twelve-year-old. The outlook of both women is changed when one of their privileged neighbours dies.

The book started off very slowly, but I was prepared for that. I had seen several reviews that described the beginning as being uninspiring, but they assured me that after 100 pages I would be completely hooked. I admit that it did pick up a bit towards the end, but instead of falling in love with the characters I found myself being increasingly wound up by them. Was I the only one who found the characters very annoying? I didn’t understand why Renée needed to keep her passions hidden and found the whole idea of her pretending to watch television ridiculous.

Paloma was equally annoying. I struggle to believe that anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old girl, would come out with phrases like:

The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence!

The book was packed with profound statements, but there were so many that it felt contrived. It was as though a philosophy text book had been regurgitated and disguised as a novel.

The words were also ridiculously long and obscure – all those syllables meant that the flow of the text was continually broken up. I don’t think I have ever read a book in which I have had to use a dictionary so often, and I think I have a pretty good vocabulary – it just came across as pretentious.

The only reason I finished the book was so I could assure myself that it was the same all the way to the end. In previous years I would have given up within 20 pages, so if you find yourself agreeing with me then I recommend you save yourself a few hours and find something else to read.

This is a fantastic choice for book clubs, as it is bound to divide people, but I’m afraid that I’m on the side of those who dislike this book.

Please can you explain why you love this book?

Did you enjoy every single word?

2008 Books in Translation

Voice Over – Celine Curiol

Translated from the French by Sam Richard

Voice Over was the latest choice for our book group, but while there was a lot to discuss, it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me.

The central character in the book is an unnamed woman who announces the train times at the Gare du Nord in Paris. The main theme appears to be her struggle to be noticed:

Her voice fills the entire station, soaring over the platforms, the halls, sailing into corners, crashing into glass walls. She is present everywhere, and yet no one recognises her.

She lacks self esteem, and so, in an effort to bring meaning to her life, she ends up in a series of difficult situations.

I felt little empathy for the woman; she seemed to bring all the misery on her self, and the majority of her problems could easily have been avoided with a little forethought. Despite the subject matter of the book, there is very little emotion. I felt distanced from the characters and so never connected with them.

The writing style makes this a difficult book to read. There is no speech and little to break up the writing, so you are often confronted with an entire page of words, which means a great deal of concentration is required. With effort, some insightful passages could be discovered:

Whenever she is in a park, she is always faced with the same dilemma. All those orderly paths overwhelm her. A park should be explored instinctively, without markers. But the walkways impose their fixed itineraries and lead to artificial crossings, which force one to choose different sections of the park over others. The only way to get to know the place is to follow the layout of paths, to explore them all without exceptions. At each fork, however, one of the paths has to be abandoned and might never be found again.

The pace of the book is slow and rambling. It is only 200 pages long, but feels twice that length. I would not have finished this book had I not been reading it for the book group. There are a lot of people who will love this book though – literary fiction fans will enjoy analysing the many layers contained in this book and, due to the number of things left unresolved, it makes a great discussion point.

Overall, I found this to be a skillfully written debut novel, but the lack of a strong plot meant it wasn’t for me.