Rodrigo Orihuela
Rodrigo Orihuela

On being banal about evil and human tragedies (in fiction)

Les bienveillantes is such a huge and, apparently, dense book that even most book lovers are likely to go out of their way to avoid it. The original version is in French and more than 900 pages long; the Spanish-language translation has 973 pages. The English-language translations — one in the US, one in Britain — are due to be published this year and are likely to pass the 900-page mark as well.

Yet, in spite of its size, a tremendous buzz has surrounded the book in France and elsewhere, and precedes its arrival in the English-speaking world. This is mainly because the novel was a literary blockbuster in France in 2006, winning two of the most important local literary prizes (the Prix Gouncourt and the French Academy award).

Big and unappealing on the outside, Les bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) stirred curiosity partially because it was written in French by an American, Jonathan Littell — albeit one who has lived in France, on and off, since his childhood in the 1970s. The most-talked-about aspect of Les bienveillantes, however, is not so much who wrote it as what he wrote about: World War II, Nazism and the Holocaust.

To most people — myself included — at first hand these do not appear to be extremely attractive themes, if only because fiction, both in literature and film, has addressed them so many times that the real meaning of what occurred in those days has faded away as the tragedy metaphored into a genre widely used by Westerners eager to show a degree of “humanitarian consciousness”.

Therefore, many people not affected directly by Nazism and the Holocaust have abused its use as a high-impact story-telling thread and, consequently, too many people have become accustomed to hearing stories related to this theme without really thinking about their meanings. This progressive emptying of the significance of a tragedy can be seen in many countries where large-scale tragedies occurred — for many young Latin-American generations, the magnitude of the killings of the dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s is lost today. The same is happening among young Americans with Vietnam and among Spaniards with the Civil War, and it is likely to happen in a few generations’ time to South Africans regarding apartheid. It is almost an inevitable trend that comes with the passage of time.

This is where Les bienveillantes‘s main strength lies, for it shakes Holocaust-related story-telling with the rare angle it uses: the first-person narrator of this fictional memoir is a decorated Nazi officer, Maximilian Aue, who reaches the upper echelons in the Nazi hierarchy, mainly in the last months of the war. This character participates directly in Nazi cruelty against Jews, either by heading mass killings or by overseeing forced labour. Convinced as he is about the virtues of national socialism and the intelligence of Hitler, he never feels any remorse regarding his actions — not during the war nor after it. He does have some qualms, though: he doesn’t like killing children or women, he believes prisoners should be fed and treated decently (if only to make them work more efficiently), and he doesn’t enjoy unnecessary cruelty. He has his own moral values and confronts them every day with his actions.

Littell has been praised for the risk he took by profiling such a character, as well as for how well researched the book is (one of its flaws is precisely a slight overabundance of documentation) and the number of cultural references, many of them only perceivable by the most cultured readers (or those of us with time enough to turn the internet upside down looking for information on the book). The name of the novel, for example, refers to an ancient Greek theatre piece in which the “Kindly Ones” are three mythological personifications of vengeance who hunt down the character Orestides to make him pay for his crimes, and the names of the chapters of the book all refer to dances popular in Europe more than a 100 years ago (minuets, zarabands, gigas).

Like all ground-shaking books do, Les bienveillantes has received a fair amount of criticism. One aspect brought into question is whether a non-German (and a Jew at that) can write the biography of a German Nazi soldier. This is a ridiculous critique for anyone who believes good story-telling is all about inventing characters different from the writer himself.

Another widespread critique, and the one that motivates this entire post, is whether Littell banalises evil by writing a book about a remorseless Nazi, one who is convinced of the necessity of his actions — and, on top of it, does not pay for them. Officer Aue is a despicable character that readers follow for hundreds of pages while he does one bad thing after another, and gets away with them all. He is presented by the author as a product of his time and the surrounding circumstances, as if Littell were pointing out that sometimes people go with the flow of the age in which they live and that not all evil people are evil by nature. It is as if the author is saying that many people would have been just as bad as Aue if had they been in his place.

Littell’s book does not glorify Nazism, mass killings, xenophobia or evilness. But it tells a story in which all the characters accept these ideas and values as an essential part of their lives. What’s more, in many subtle ways Littell makes his position clear and passes a crude, negative judgement on the behaviour of Aue and his comrades.

Littell does a magnificent job at writing through the mind of a Nazi soldier while managing to condemn the character he speaks through, yet even so he cannot dissipate the question that hangs over the book and which is applicable to fiction about tragedies all over the world: How far can authors of fiction go when writing about such things? Is it OK to try to stand in the shoes of “the bad guys” until the end if it is clear that it is only fiction? Where does fiction about evil cross the line that divides responsible story-telling from the banal and irresponsible kind?

If we believe that, on occasions, fiction can help explain certain aspects of the real world, then people who dare take the risk of looking at the motivations and feelings of the world’s evil ones should be lauded, or at least respected. After all, they are attempting to explain a large part of what is going on. Not everybody seems to agree. Then again, not everybody may agree.