The Kindly Ones

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

The Kindly Ones
by Jonathan Littell
Vintage, HK$117

The Kindly Ones tells an epic if familiar tale: 950 pages long, its central protagonist is a former Nazi who is living a refined and prosperous life in France when his past catches up with him. For once, however, the ex-Nazi - Dr Max Aue - embraces the chance to catch up with his past, and provides philosophical, aesthetic and even literary contexts for his part in the Holocaust. Aue is cold-blooded even by the standards of the SS: an intelligence officer, he is a member of a death squad that operates on the Russian front. Aue, Littell suggests, was perfect for the job: he was the prime suspect in the murder of his mother and stepfather. Many of his fellow SS officers have no such degraded pathology. It is their ordinariness that is terrifying. After fighting at Stalingrad, he graduates to Auschwitz, the culmination of homicidal efficiency. First published in French, The Kindly Ones attracted admiration and controversy: its powerful voice, meticulous research and ambitious narrative structure earned a number of literary prizes. It was also condemned for its cool depictions of sadism, and its explanations of seeming inexplicable evil. The Kindly Ones is bleak, terrifying and powerful.