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.