Cover of The Kindly Ones“The Kindly Ones” is a euphemism for the Furies – those hellish agents of vengeance who haunt those who have committed crimes. The themes that sear through this extraordinary, painful work of fiction are entirely suited to the tragedies of the House of Atreus, whose walls drip with blood: incest, war, matricide, plagues; the dark dreams of the guilty, the cold forms of the dead. But the staging ground is not some distant, ancient city-state; rather it is Europe, in the 20th century, and with our memories still burning. Dr Aue, the book’s narrator, is pursued by his own demons, and hence decides to set down on paper what he has seen and felt during his life as a member of the security branch of the SS during the Second World War. This monumental novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2006, and has already garnered comparisons to War and Peace, as well as Suite Française (although in Germany it has come under fire from critics who claim that it paints a false picture). While it does not stand up to those masterpieces, lacking the characterisation, broad sweep and vividness of both, it does create something new and, in its own way, remarkable.

Aue is an observer, a “veritable memory factory”. Right from the start, he wants us to believe that he is “just like you”, although it soon becomes very clear that he is not. He forms an intense attachment to his twin sister, and when this is discovered (during early adolescence) he is sent away to boarding school. Here he learns to offer himself sexually to the older boys, transferring his lust for his sister into this desire to be taken (which is developed in strange fantasies, one of which involves a green-skinned Martian princess, her burly soldiers and a German sausage used as a dildo). His love for his sister reappears throughout the book, never slaked by his sordid encounters with men. Ambitious, and a committed National Socialist, he wishes to understand by observation, and the prose is characterised by the clarity, briskness and precision of a military report (qualities which eventually gain the narrator a place on Himmler’s staff). At the beginning of the novel, this dryness and cold-bloodedness grate so much as to be almost unbearable. It becomes clear, though, that the effect of this is the same as the thousand tongues that clatter at Richard III, constantly draining and demanding; although instead of “tongues” read “bureaucrats”. The early part of the novel deals with the minutiae of strategy; it takes a different turn after an encounter with a mysterious old Jew.

This man claims to know where he is to be buried, and asks Aue to walk with him; when they reach the spot, he calmly waits to be shot. Here there is a lyrical quality, which resurfaces at odd moments (as when Aue’s batman dies: “his blue eyes faded into the blue of the sky. The sky erased his eyes.”). There are deeper, hidden things at work, which come to the surface when Aue is shot in the head at Stalingrad. After a long, Pynchonesque hallucination, he wakes believing that he has a pineal eye which enables him to see things as they are (including Hitler, wearing the costume of a Jew). This is, I think, what he means by understanding through observation: although how are we to believe that his delusions are truth?

And all the way through, Aue encounters horrors, and reports them unemotionally, indeed takes part in atrocities, including the murder of his mother and stepfather. It is hard to sympathise with him. His justification for his part in the Final Solution is that he is working within the spirit of the law: the will of Hitler is what the Volk should implement, even if this means gassing thousands of people.

Littell succeeds in recreating the tedium and excitement of war, moving with ease from a barrage of data to a thrilling account of Stalingrad to a final scene of weird and terrible beauty in a zoo where all the animals lie dying and the Furies finally catch up with Aue. This novel will not suit everyone, but Littell has asked some questions that will surely batter away at literature for some time to come. The novel’s moral framework is more fitting to the stone palaces of Agamemnon than it is to the courts of Nuremburg, and perhaps this is why, in the end, it fails, for we cannot apply such notions to the complexities of our modern age.

The Kindly Ones is published by Chatto & Windus