Friday, March 26, 2010

Thousand-page Reich

I have just emerged, somewhat groggy, from the oppressive
experience of reading Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly
Ones, in which a former SS officer recalls his Second World
War experience on the Russian front and back in Germany
as the Third Reich crumbles. It’s a thousand pages long and
so densely detailed that the eye cannot help but skim at
times. But the detail is necessary to Littell’s purpose, which,
as far as I can tell anyway, is to get us inside the Nazi mind
and show us how it accommodated the idea of killing
millions of Jews, Poles, gypsies and other lesser breeds
without any single individual ever feeling, or having to feel,
fully responsible. There are so many committees and
councils and multi-layered operating procedures that the
book might well have been subtitled The Bureaucracy of
the Holocaust. The Jews were herded into concentration
camps not by humans but by acronyms, and gassed and
burnt there by a process of documentation. In triplicate.
Such, at least, was how the Germans under Hitler justified
or excused what was happening. A lot of it was apparently
done in the name of efficiency too. Personally, whenever I
hear the word efficiency I reach for my sense of history.

The Kindly Ones is not just a thinly disguised documentary,
though. It succeeds as a great novel should—as a
masterwork of the imagination, illuminating reality by the
force and scope of its conceptualization. Coleridge said of
the actor Edmund Kean that seeing him act was like reading
Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Reading Littell’s novel
is like seeing the Nazi war that way, with sickening claps of
thunder to boot. Through the torturous twistings of the
mind of his narrator, Maximilian Aue, we witness, indeed
virtually experience, every possible shade of degradation of
the human spirit. The last hundred pages or so are a tour de
force, from the abandoned country house in western
Poland where Aue acts out, as it were, the history of the
Third Reich as a copro-erotic tragi-comedy, through his
flight across country ahead of the advancing Russians, to
the final days in Berlin—including, even, a previously
unrecorded encounter with Hitler in his bunker.

Many scenes remain engraved in my mind, but for some
reason the words I can’t shake are those—almost certainly
taken by Littell from a true event—on a sign hung around
the neck of a disembowelled farmer by Russian soldiers
who, having repelled the German invasion of their
homeland are now swarming unstoppably towards Berlin
to get this war over and done with: YOU HAD A HOUSE,

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