Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (Harper; 984 pages) is one of those brutalist European maxi-novels that periodically come soaring at us across the Atlantic as if lofted here by a trebuchet. The last one was Roberto Bolaño's 2666, in November. You can recognize them by their seriousness of purpose, their wild overestimation of the reader's attention span and their interest in physical violence that makes Saw look like Dora the Explorer. It's as if these European writers are laughing at their prim American counterparts, with their fussy scruples, the way Sudanese warlords laugh at American gangsta rappers. "Violence?" they seem to say. "War? What do you know about it, mon semblable, mon frère? You've been a country for 200 years. We've got 30 centuries of blood in our soil!"
The Kindly Ones is a grandly hallucinatory account of World War II from the point of view of an SS officer named Max Aue. Max is an intellectual and a loner with refined taste in music and literature. As a narrator he reminds one of a chillier, less funny Humbert Humbert. But Max's business isn't raping nymphets. It's racketing around the Third Reich, from Stalingrad to Auschwitz to Hitler's bunker, advancing the cause of Nazi genocide.
The force and clarity with which Littell renders the physical realities of war and mass murder are simply astounding. His battlefields are the chaotic, deconstructed battlefields of Tolstoy and Stendhal. As for the genocide ... I have searched in vain for a passage I feel comfortable quoting. Suffice it to say that his descriptions of the most extreme forms of human suffering are explicit and precise. This book is not for the squeamish, and if you're not squeamish, it will make you squeamish.
The French have pronounced The Kindly Ones (the phrase refers to the Furies of Greek myth) a modern masterpiece. In the U.S., the reception has been mixed at best; the New York Times called it "an odious stunt." That it is not. It's far from perfect: Littell has that maddening Continental contempt for paragraph breaks, and he details Max's neuroses with dismaying thoroughness--Max is gay and obsessed with sodomy, which he used to practice with his twin sister, for whom he still yearns (lusty twins being the last resort of the lazy novelist). Above all, there is the book's ludicrous, unnecessary length, which makes it practically unreadable.
But The Kindly Ones is unmistakably the work of a profoundly gifted writer, if not an especially disciplined one. Littell's great insight is into the damage that genocide does to those who perpetrate it. The Nazi bureaucracy has sold Max and his colleagues on mass murder as a hygienic solution to Germany's woes, regrettable but necessary. But carrying it out tears them to pieces. They stumble around half mad and constantly drunk. They wall off the horror, but it oozes through the cracks. The work of destruction is feeding back into them, destroying them in turn. "What if murder weren't a definitive solution," Max says. "What if on the contrary this new fact, even less reparable than the ones before it, opened in turn onto new abysses? Then, what way out was left?" The answer is none. But The Kindly Ones gives these lost souls all they could possibly expect: understanding, without pity or forgiveness.