Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Read (Miserable Lie)
The Kindly Ones is one of the most disgusting books I've ever read. Other contenders for that honor happen to rank among my personal favorites. You may ask, what made this brand of awful so, well, awful? Perhaps it was the length - after all this book totals damn near 1,000 pages. Could it be that depravity is not suited for such scope? The first of those previously mentioned novels, which I loved so much, was Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange which even in it's expanded form - comes in at less than 200 pages. Is bloody murder simply better when bite-size? The answer is no. Although the pacing in 'orange' is very well done. Still, I say no while thinking of another favorite; Bret Easton Ellis' infamous American Psycho - while considerably shorter than Littell's book, its 400 plus pages include long passages about things like men's hair care products. How does Ellis manage to keep my interest? By making Patrick Bateman's psychotic outbursts chaotic, yet still believable. Thus the main character is more compelling - and dare I say it, more likable. On some level being appalled by Littell's protagonist Max Aue is the only viable response. Sure, that's understandable when you are talking about a Nazi SS officer. Yet there are instances where depth of character and motivation necessary to keep things interesting. For the most part this depth is absent. We as readers see Max's rise through the ranks, committing or witnessing atrocities at many WW2 hotspots - from Ukraine and the Caucasus, to Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and even the Battle of Berlin. However powerful these events and the images the conjure can be, the narrative is largely dragged down by bureaucratic blah blah and pure filth. I honestly don't know if I've read more passages about poop and it's excretion in my entire life, let alone all in the same novel.
As historical narratives go, The Kindly Ones is not entirely inaccurate. At least not in a grand and offensive fashion. There are a fair amount of embellishments to be sure - brief appearances by well known Nazi figures (Himmler, Speer, Eichmann, and yes, Hitler) which add some intrigue for a moment, until you realize that they seldom contribute to the plot in anything but a vague and in-direct manner. In Hitler's case his most memorable part in the book comes as comic relief when he is bitten on the nose. With these characters, and innumerable others, who are made up, but ultimately no less inconsequential - Max talks. Sometimes at great length about the war, it's impact, meaning, direction, implementation and everything else. Despite these conversations and tireless referencing the payoff in most cases seems rather shallow. Of course the translation doesn't do us any favors either. This book was originally translated from French, and not very well I might add. Thankfully grammar isn't the culprit here - if it were this book would be nearly un-readable. Instead form, and formatting is to blame. Paragraphs frequently run-on for pages. Add to that the fact that there are no indentations with a change in speaker, and you get a reading experience that really drags and sometimes confuses.
Finally to address the plot - and the aforementioned disgust. The book is set up as Max's fictional autobiography. As such his actions as an SS officer are expected to be gruesome, and they are. However as a student of history, this was nothing new to me, nor was it what truly repulsed me. Being a straight man, I was not entirely ready for the amount of homosexuality in this book. As someone who has newly resolved to be a somewhat serious critic of literature I could not let this deter me. I said to myself, hey Aaron, Elton John is a legend, and Morrissey is awesome - Don't give up this may turn out to be a good story. Well, I didn't give up, and soon I found yet another sexually deviant secret of Max's. That secret was offered as his explanation for his choice in sexual partners. See in truth Max is incestuously obsessed with his twin sister Una. Having been discovered by their mother the siblings are parted. Deciding that since he can no longer be with his sister - being her, in a sense, is the next best thing. While engaging in forbidden acts which could get him killed while in the SS, Max remains in a hollow existence. He continues to hold out hope that he'll be reunited with Una even after her marriage - and hates his mother eternally for her actions. This dynamic is where the novel gets its name. The Kindly Ones, refers to a Greek tragedy involving The Furies who torment those who commit patricide, or matricide. This is a reminder of how common a theme incest is within literature, as such it does not cease to be gross - But it does cease to have such dramatic impact. What actually does shock the reader comes much later on in the novel, well past page 800. Without going into too much sordid detail, I will say it includes auto-erotic asphyxiation, more sodomy, and more poop. This truly is a scene from the nightmares of Ugandan evangelicals - they really do "eat da poo poo". In a work touted as groundbreaking and controversial, the evils of Nazism become banal and boring.
Thematically speaking this actually turned out to be cliche, despite acclaim which praises Littell for originality. A rather huge disappointment all told. I checked this book out because it was on the 1001 books you must read before you die list. It may be my own fault, considering I like the idea of not knowing what I'll find - selecting books from the list at random, and not reading the introductory flap before diving in ; although the flap, when I read it after finishing the book - proved to be useless as far as preparing the reader for what is in store should they attempt to read The Kindly Ones. This novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2006. (a French Prize) which says it's for the best most imaginative prose work of the year. Now I'm sure that it reads better in it's original French translation - but I am equally sure that there must have been something more worthy of a prestigious national award.