Reading “The Kindly Ones” is like roaming around a dilapidated mansion – it begs you to explore; it is both fascinating and repulsive. The book is very ambitious, and it’s a pleasure to read literature that takes on a serious if uncomfortable subject, and literature that takes itself seriously. I would have given this five stars, and I do find it largely successful, but there are some snags in the subplot that don’t quite work.
The overarching historical plot works well. The protagonist, Maximilien Aue, visits the WWII hot spots: Babi Yar, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Berlin as it falls. I found the perspective gripping. And rather than finding his interaction with actual notorious Nazis ridiculous - Himmler, Speer, Eichmann, Höss, Mengele, Hitler and Bormann, his mustache brush - I found the approach better than fictionalizing the bigwigs with aliases we’d have to guess at. Mostly, I appreciated the point of view – I’ve read other WWII novels but few if any in which we’re escorted through by a perpetrator of the Holocaust. It’s a privileged if disgusting view. While there is obscene crime in the book, no need to get all righteous about it and refuse to read on. (If your stomach is weak, don’t even try this book.) The protagonist would tell you that everything that happened in WWII was caused by human beings, not monsters or genetic mutants. Aue himself doesn’t seem designed to represent some horrid beast. For the most part, he appears to be a cultivated, educated but otherwise ordinary man sucked into the infernal machine.
And yet – and here comes my problem with the subplot – he’s not some ordinary man. He is one fucked-up cookie with some heavy issues, mostly being obsessively in love with his twin sister, with whom he longs to be one. And he unfairly despises his French mother, whom he feels betrayed his German father, thus setting up psychologically Aue’s allegiance to the Fatherland. And he is not just compelled to murder as a consequence of war, but he’s also an out-and-out murderer. Aue would also have preferred to be a woman. No sin there, but definitely not some ordinary guy tricked into doing the devil’s business. His sexual perversions don’t stop at desiring his sister. He also gets it on with a specially whittled tree branch at the tail-end of an excessive and prolonged masturbatory orgy. The fantasies! Ugh. I was both surprised and not surprised that “The Kindly Ones” won the “Bad Sex Award” for fiction in 2009. Not for sex that takes place – rather a wet dream. Oy.
At the end, Aue is pursued both by oncoming Russians but also by “the kindly ones,” aka the Furies, for his personal crimes. I both enjoyed this mix of main plot/subplot and found it distracting. And in all cases, Aue knows he is guilty and yet doesn’t seem to regret anything, for various reasons.
On the downside, the author does tend to go off on tangents that can be worse than tedious – they’re sometimes hard to follow. Many deal with bureaucratic issues, but for me the most exasperating was the long monologue on Caucasian linguistics by Aue’s friend Voss. I suppose the point about the difficulty and/or futility of being able to identify a language’s/people’s true origins was clear, still the author really begged the reader’s patience. I can only imagine that such passages are intended to play up the contrast of how tedium exists alongside horror. Nevertheless, whereas I would have given up on other books, this was too interesting to put down. Once the dull spots were slogged through, it was easy to get caught up again.
My favorite parts of the book were the hallucinatory segments. When Aue’s arm frees itself from his body of its own accord and goes off shooting wildly, disconnected from him. When he is shot in Stalingrad and suddenly he’s swimming the Volga, then floating about in a dirigible with a mad scientist type. When the masturbatory episode exhausts itself and Aue imagines a dead figure in the snow.
Finally, I liked the figure of Helene. It was important to me that she was part of the book. The scene where Aue tells her what the deal out east really is brings it home for me. She says the German people will have to pay for their crimes, and Aue responds, yes, if they lose, their enemies will be pitiless. But Helene says even if the Germans win they are going to pay. So true! I found her a sobering anchor-point in this sprawling book. Unfortunately, Helene has to be abandoned, because Aue is guilty and condemned and although human, he must be divorced from human comfort.