The Kindly Ones Review

23:50 Sun 19 Jun 2011
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Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is the best work of fiction I’ve read in the last couple of years. It is the story of Max Aue, a Nazi military bureaucrat, as recollected by him in his old age. It’s powerful, gripping, disturbing, shocking, and insightful, and I highly recommend it.

It is a very dark work, unsurprisingly. Aue is involved in the logistical side of genocide on the Eastern Front, later ends up in Stalingrad, and throughout the war is in a position to witness all the layers of the Nazi regime, from the execution of policy and its effects, to bureaucratic struggles with implementing directives on an organizational level, and to a lesser extent the origins of policy.

It’s not simply another take on the banality of evil, although that is an element; the book explores the cultural and psychological impact of Nazi atrocities on German society and personnel, and particularly Aue himself. The situations are of course horrifying, but it’s impossible to deal with this subject matter and not be horrifying, and The Kindly Ones personalizes the horror in a way I hadn’t encountered before, even while emphasizing the extents to which the people involved, particularly the higher-ups, attempts to depersonalize what was going on.

Aue is a compelling but very slippery narrator; there were a number of points in the book where I thought I had a sense of who he was and what he was like, only to have it surprise me.

It appears to have been researched very well, and certainly gives every appearance of verisimilitude in detailing the inner workings of the Nazi bureaucratic apparatus.

It’s a disturbing and upsetting work, but possibly a great one.

Thank you to Helen, who gave this to me as a gift!

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