The Kindly Ones — Les Bienveillantes if you read it in French, which I didn’t — is probably the most brilliant piece of trash fiction ever written. I dedicated most of the summer to Jonathan Littell’s much-praised, internationally bestselling blockbuster and loved almost every minute of it.
But it’s definitely not as great as Le Figaro thinks: ‘A monument of contemporary literature.’ Nor Le Monde: ‘A staggering triumph.’ Nor yet Anita Brookner who claimed, in The Spectator no less, that it is not only ‘diabolically (and I use the word advisedly) clever’ but also a ‘tour de force’ which ‘outclasses all other fictions [this year] and will continue to do so for some time to come.’
Note that two out of three of those rave reviews are French. There are reasons for that. The first is that the French are always going to be hot on the idea of an American who decides to write in their language rather than his own. And the second is that it’s very long. Über-pretentiously long. The story I heard is that Littell’s French editor tried to get him to slim it down a bit and that Littell refused. And rightly so, as another editor at the same publisher cynically told a friend of mine: ‘If it had been half the length, it would never have sold anywhere near as many as 800,000 copies in France.’
But just because it’s 984 pages doesn’t make it the ‘new War and Peace’ (as Le Nouvel Observateur has it). Being concerned with the wartime adventures of just one SS officer, it hasn’t nearly Tolstoy’s range or breadth. There are places — the ones involving the ethnologist, for example — where you do feel slightly that you’re being served up raw, indigestible gobbets of the author’s evidently diligent research. And the central premise is flawed. (Don’t read the next pars if you don’t want to know what happens.)
If, as the book invites us to believe at the beginning, brutal Nazi atrocities are something any of us could have committed had we lived in the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong regime, then why make the narrator a matricidal homosexual serial killer who only ever found true love in an incestuous relationship with his sister and fantasises about being sodomised by eight-armed green-skinned Martians? Doesn’t make him exactly Everyman, does it?
Towards the end, Littell seems to admit this to himself when he gives up even trying to be Tolstoy (or Vasily Grossman) and comes over Thomas L. Harris meets Ian Fleming meets Lord of the Flies. There are two policemen who appear to have strayed from some sort of early Tom Stoppard comedy; there’s a bloated, flatulent rich industrialist in an armoured train flanked by hot-babe blonde SS women and stroking a cat; there’s a superfluity of dream sequences which you skip because you think ‘well if it’s not actually happening why should I care? It’s not like I don’t know already the guy dreaming this stuff is weird’.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The book is still a magnificent achievement, whose qualities vastly outweigh its flaws. The Stalingrad scenes are hallucinogenically intense; as too are Littell’s great set-piece descriptions of the early Einsatzgruppe atrocities like the Babi Yar massacre. You’ve probably never tried putting yourself in the shoes of a young SD officer who, whether he likes it or not, has the job of supervising the extermination and burial of village after village of (all too human-looking) men, women and children. Littell does the job for you with a verisimilitude — at once nauseating, heartbreaking and intensely disturbing — which will haunt your nightmares for months.
Writers can do that, though. What impressed me far more — blew me away, in fact, because I’ve never seen it done so successfully — was his fantastically rich, detailed and utterly convincing depiction of the whole Nazi system. I mean everything from the sports club and canteen facilities for SS officers, to the small-talk of Berlin landladies, to his evocation of the Nazi euphemisms, the Nazi bureaucracy, the Nazi acronyms and the Nazi attitudes which infected every last detail of daily life. We most of us have this cosy idea that had we been living in Nazi Germany, we would have been either a heroic resistant to Hitler like Von Stauffenberg, or imperiously aloof like Ernst Junger, or one of those ‘good Germans’ like Rommel is supposed to have been, fighting a clean, gentlemanly war in places where you never torched villages or strung up 12-year-old partisans or butchered prisoners. Littell’s point — and it does come across despite the serial-killing-incestual-Martian-sodomy problem — is that these weren’t always available options.
All the narrator of The Kindly Ones wants is a quiet life — preferably some sort of harmless job in international law. Had he been living today, of course, there would have been jobs for him aplenty, he would be making a mint, and would have absolutely no need to shoot pregnant women at point-blank range with a Schmeisser and then kick their twitching corpses into a ravine. But in Nazi Germany postings for international lawyers were limited.
I was turned on to the book by my friend Michael Gove, who was feeling a bit alone because no one else he knew had read it. ‘Well, it reminds me a bit of what I see happening now with the Conservative party,’ I told him. ‘The slightly disgusting way I see everyone scrambling desperately to align their politics with that of the incoming regime.’ (I think the character Thomas may have been based on Peter Mandelson.)
What it made me think most of, though, was the modern green movement. To get on in Nazi Germany, one thing was paramount: you had to believe — or pretend to believe — that Jews (and other untermenschen) were worthless, parasitical scum who deserved to be wiped from the face of the earth. This wasn’t an optional, bolt-on extra for your really hardcore, serious party activist who wanted to show a bit of extra zeal. It was the very essence of the Nazi weltanschauung.
Am I equating the Holocaust with wanting to tax carbon emissions and carpet the countryside with wind farms? Obviously not. Only the mindset behind it. Just as the big idea dominating every last detail of Nazi Germany was race hatred, so the big idea of the modern green movement is Man-made Climate Change Doom. Like the ‘Jewish question’ it’s not an adjunct. It’s everything. All the world’s socio-political issues, not just obviously environmental ones like famine and water shortages but economic ones like energy supply, regulation and taxation, must obsessively be viewed through this single filter: climate is changing — and in a bad way; it’s all our fault; something must be done, urgently.
The greens — just like the Nazis (who were also big greens: go figure) — not only persecute and try to silence anyone who disagrees with their ideological position, but even (as we’ve seen in recent scandals involving tree-ring data samples and surface temperature readings) seek to suppress any scientific evidence that contradicts it. So passionate is their commitment to saving the environment that they would rather let that environment be destroyed (by wind-farms, biofuels, crazily inappropriate solar tiles on the roofs of mediaeval churches) than allow dissenters to get in their holy mission’s way. Why is it, I wonder, that the Germans are so irresistibly drawn to Götterdämmerung? And do they really have to be so persistent in exporting the concept?