The Kind­ly Ones

Jonathan Lit­tell; Char­lotte Man­dell, trans.
  • Review
By – December 22, 2011

There is noth­ing kind­ly about The Kind­ly Ones, by Jonathan Lit­tell, and any com­par­isons to this nov­el and War and Peace, are cer­tain­ly pred­i­cat­ed more on the num­ber of pages (983) than they are on con­tent. Yes, this is a nov­el of war, but there is no peace to be found anywhere. 

The Kind­ly Ones is not a nov­el for the faint of heart. It is the grue­some nar­ra­tive of a Nazi, osten­si­bly pat­terned after Max Aue, but even more, it is the unbri­dled depic­tion of a high­ly edu­cat­ed yet evil man with a depraved mind. The back sto­ry is well known to those who might read this nov­el: the Holo­caust — the sys­tem­at­ic anni­hi­la­tion of the Jew­ish peo­ple. And it is these very sys­tems that Littell’s nar­ra­tor ana­lyzes in his own detached, dis­gust­ing­ly self-absorbed con­ver­sa­tions — with him­self and those around him. Lit­tell offers no plot; no char­ac­ters with whom one can iden­ti­fy; no scenes or set­tings that bring plea­sure; and, no pro­found insights or expla­na­tions. What the read­er is left with is nar­ra­tion — a painful, hor­ren­dous, porno­graph­ic, intense stream of vile, uncon­scionable invec­tives spewed by this shame­less indi­vid­ual — a char­ac­ter sketch of a man with­out regret, one mere­ly doing his job, just a man” who cries over musi­cal pas­sages, but nev­er sheds a tear as he watch­es the Jews killed as a butch­er slaugh­ters a cow.” 

Ques­tions of audi­ence and pur­pose rise to the sur­face con­stant­ly when read­ing The Kind­ly Ones. For whom has Lit­tell writ­ten this nov­el and why? There will be those for whom nov­els about the Nazi men­tal­i­ty val­i­date their beliefs: every Nazi was a mur­der­er, plain and sim­ple. And, there will be those who will be remind­ed of Elie Wiesel’s con­tention that: There is no such thing as a lit­er­a­ture of the Holo­caust, nor can there be. The very expres­sion is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms” (qtd. in Rosen­feld 14). Cer­tain­ly, there are any num­ber of sur­vivors who chance upon this nov­el and reject it because they do not need or want to hear the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions and ratio­nale for these heinous acts. Per­haps, then, Littell’s inten­tion is to chal­lenge the lim­its of the reader’s imag­i­na­tion and endurance. If that is the pur­pose, it succeeds.

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

Discussion Questions