THE KINDLY ONES
By Jonathan Littell
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Harper. 984 pp. $29.99
Hire some nice young people. Tell them to copulate. Take a picture and you're a pornographer. But add a caption and you're a documentarian. Better yet, frame the picture and voilà! you're an artist. Best of all, turn that picture into half a million words, slap on a cover and you're a writer. Jonathan Littell's expansive and repulsive first novel -- an award-winning bestseller in France, where it was originally published -- is part literature, predominantly documentary and most memorably pornography.
"The Kindly Ones" begins in the present, when Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi bureaucrat who has adopted a modest new identity as the manager of a lace factory in France, decides to write his memoirs. In the opening pages, Aue sets the terms for the book. He is unapologetic about his role in the Holocaust, but neither is he rabidly anti-Semitic. Instead, he insists, perhaps correctly, that his atrocities were a function of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, the 6 million Jews murdered by the likes of Aue during the 1940s were in a worse place, yet who can say whether, if circumstances were reversed, many of them wouldn't have bowed to authority as he did?