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Evil dead

Jonathan Littell's novel "Les Bienveillantes" came out in German translation last month - to much critical hullaballoo. Novelist Georg Klein analyses the portrayal of mass murder in a book with an SS officer as narrator.

The 400-page German translation of Jonathan Littell's corpse-littered SS novel,"Les Bienveillantes," has put the German-language feuilletons into a critical frenzy, despite the general consensus that the book is bad. We have compiled a selection of the accusations hurled.

The SS man lives on. More than half a century after the members of this organisation finally slipped out of their blood, sweat and office-dust covered uniforms once and for all, they are a more familiar sight than ever. Instantly recognisable in their high boots and black garb they stomp through films, comics and novels. So I find it surprising, neither as reader nor author, that a former SS officer has been saying "je" in a prize-winning "French bestseller for over a year now and "ich" in the 400-page German translation since the Febrary 23rd.

And it's not as if anyone in this country who takes up Jonathan Littell's novel "Les Bienveillantes" doesn't know what they're in for, historically speaking. An SS man as narrator inevitably means no end of blood and thunder combined with the elaborate logistics and technological innovations necessary for the mass murder of what National Socialism deemed inferior human beings and enemies of the state. These crimes have been comprehensively documented and extensively recounted. Parallel to this factual research and fictionalisation, in the second half of the twentieth century - from the Nuremburg Trials to the most recent book publications - these crimes have been ascribed with a singular distinctiveness. More so than other horrific deeds, those committed by the SS are seen to possess a transcendent, metaphysical quality, which to this day, conjures up the very essence of evil.

"Les Bienviellantes" by Jonathan Littell, now available in the German translation as "Die Wohlgesinnten"

Littell's narrator Max Aue, doctor of law and former high-ranking officer in the SS secret police, plays with this conjuring act by wrapping the reality of past events in his own words right from the outset. He prefixes the account of his life with a long reflective passage, an amalgamation of general historical recapping, pop-philosophical reasoning, and private, even intimate, confessions. And having digested all the appropriate scientific literature he discusses such things as the number of victims of war and persecution. Resolute, almost to the point of brashness, Littell's hero attempts to stand shoulder to shoulder with historical research, in other words with the powers of description and interpretation from whom he, as denier or down-player, would have the most to fear. With bated breath and a deep sense of unease, the reader waits for all the blood and thunder to begin and to "be there" in the midst of it thanks to the unique qualities of literary fiction.

Aue starts with the attack on the Soviet Union. The reader follows the protagonist, shares his perspective on events. And events stride ahead in evenly portioned scenes. The memory of the first person narrator seems to be incredibly rich in detail and photographically accurate. The supposed stuff of memory comes at us neatly structured, logically coherent and poster bright – in other words, just as any of today's gossipy trivial authors and script writers - the legitimate heirs to the historical novel - would assemble a past reality from time-honoured components. Narration of this sort suggests both general clever-cleverness and individual participation. And within the framework of this double simulation, we do indeed get the feeling, because we are so deeply familiar with the process, of "being there" and we believe what our fantasy is offered to imagine. Yes, our own imagination plays along, by shooting in related images from our own stock left over from books and films.

And so to June 29, 1941. Here we are in the Ukrainian city of Luzk, mentally wired to the SS man Aue, standing in front the victims of a massacre. Hundreds of bloated corpses buzzing with flies, civilians, women and children that the Soviet secret service decided to liquidise before their departure. Aue feels nauseous. He steps away to smoke a cigarette. As any sensitive intellectual he thinks his thoughts, and as narrator, he shares them with us.

Umpteen hours of reading later and you can look back over the succession of horror scenes and see the escalation: after the victims of the Soviet secret service comes a pogrom by the Ukrainian population of Lemberg on their Jewish fellow citizens. Aue witnesses for the first time individual humans being beaten to death. Then he takes part, initially still in his role as observer, in an SS mass shooting where he is confronted with the seriality of the procedure, the mass scale of killing and dying. On September 1941, he finally grabs his gun and in the Babyn Jar ravine near Kiev, takes on the task of administering the so-called coup de grace to the wounded. On two occasions Aue's actions are raised to the rank of personal meetings by the descriptions of his victims. The first is granted just two sentences which lend him the contours of a young man screaming in pain. The second figure, which rises out of the sea of faceless victims, is a beautiful, almost naked girl, the sight and returned looks of whom prompt the protagonist to reflect on for a quarter of a page before shooting her repeatedly in the head and comparing the result to an exploding fruit. In a comparison like this, the character of the young Aue, his narrative alter ego, the ability of the author and the imagination of the reader all convene in one stylistic platitude. It makes little sense to weigh up against each other the drastic quality of the description, the gaucheness, the psychological realism or the pornographic kitschiness. The entire passage is as appallingly well meant and as unspectacularly written as the parameters of the narrative means to hand, the parameters of the trivial novel, allow. Ostensibly, the reader experiences everything that happened and everything experienced by those involved. Evil however, which in literature cannot only a be quality of the plot but must also be a quality of the style, remains invisible.

Relatively early on, just a seventh of the way through the book, we reach the so-called "great undertaking" in Kiev and with it the brutal climax of Aue's role in the mass killing. While the plot continues to sweep us along through a whole series of deadly acts of violence, zooming in like a camera and isolating details with in-depth descriptions, when one of Aue's hated psychopathic SS comrades shatters a man's skull with a spade or a babe in arms is smashed against a wall, the protagonist reverts back to his passive eye witness role. Much in these passages will seem familiar to the reader. We have encountered the images, which the novel attempts to conjure up scenically in other texts and films, often presented identically. And whether we like it or not, this uniform pre-programming immunises us to a certain degree against potential horrors. This also goes for Aue's visit to Auschwitz, where he observes the arrival and selection of the victims, but turns down the offer to have a look inside the gas chambers.

On the whole the representation of direct violence, compared with the scope of the novel, does not take up too much space. The passages in which Aue describes tourist attractions in the occupied towns and cities, the adversities of various stages of the campaign, or the sense of camaraderie amongst the officers, are far more extensive. Littell prefers to let his heroes argue Baedeker-like or reach for a schnapps glass rather than put a gun in their hands. Although these parts of the book are also regularly peppered with reflection on the murder campaign. Partly this takes place in Aue's mind as he works through things, partly it is woven into the dialogue and offered to us argumentatively in direct speech and rebuttal.

The ideological rationale behind the so-called final solution, the connection between the massacre and the war of aggression against the Soviet Union, the practical problems of implementation and the complex consequences for all involved and affected are then dealt with at length and often in a theoretical fish bowl. And this is where you sense the research leaking through unmistakably. Littell fills the mouths of the confraternity of perpetrators with today's knowledge of events as a whole. And so those swimming in the current of events oddly have an understanding of the spectrum of events which historical research compiled from multiple sources in the decades to follow.

And a similar thing takes place in the moral dimension. Aue psychologically analyses his SS surroundings, developing his own typology of crime. He registers and analyses the extent to which he and the others react with curiosity, blood lust, abhorrence, pangs of conscience and somatic disturbances. The views of Aue the man of action, pushing thirty on the Eastern Front, are indistinguishable from those committed to paper by his alter ego shortly before his retirement from civilian working life, as a supposed septuagenarian somewhere around 1980. Over the full palette of war experiences, over mud and blood and thunder, arches a clear sky of rational insight. And if you ignore the often chronically contrived rhetorical opposition of the individual dialogues, you see that the circuitous rantings and perspicuous arguments of the SS officers, historical research, Aue the doer and Aue the rememberer are all agreed about the horizon of the world view on offer. And wherever a deluded SS man runs amok in some ideological nonsense, there is always a linguist or a medic in a grey Wehrmacht tunic or a clever lawyer in black just around the corner to straighten out his fanatically skewed ideas with some good arguments.

You could call this the enlightened harmony of trivial realism. The narrative processes which have developed with the historical and psychological novel over the last two centuries, display in their late trivial consummation a compulsively homogenising power. The quintessence of this uniform panorama is that nothing that happened is indescribable or incomprehensible. Under closer examination, everything committed or suffered slots unresisting into ideological, political, military, bureaucratic or at least psycho-mechanical contexts. The individuals act within these contexts and however appalling their behaviour, it is nonetheless understandable; their reactions and decisions are ultimately plausible and, in terms of the horror lurking round every corner, predictable even. However chaotic the course of events, the world revolves in realistic harmony with its description and explanation.

But as a result, evil develops a bad case of consumption. In the conventional description of the massacre, in the neat depiction of the circumstances and not least the psychological and moral reasoning, all belief in an incomprehensibly vast calamity which is impossible to describe adequately, runs out of spiritual breath. The criminal loses his metaphysical format. His actions become just so much stupid muddling through, duty-fulfilment to a greater or lesser extent, cowardly fitting in, curious testing out, unadulterated sloppiness, neurotic displacement activity, choleric outbursts, and sometimes even sadistic excess. But no deed, not even the most ghastly, produces that supposedly elementary, persistently sacred sense of horror, which not only from the safe distance of our low-violence lives, we so love to pin on the Holocaust. The great dread, the sublime shiver are left far behind in the sometimes brisk, sometimes leisurely self-perpetuating momentum of this realism concept, in the trot of narrative rationality.

This is not necessarily a shortcoming. Taking the wind so thoroughly out of the sails of evil certainly has an element of evil to it. And anyone looking behind the smooth wide mask of the historicising, psychologising trivial novel to make out the facial expressions of an author, will find countless traces scattered about the text of an oddly twilit disposition. Right at the start old man Aue refers to the American historian Raul Hilberg, author of the canonical work "The Destruction of the European Jews", with a strange, almost smug irony as "le tres respecte professeur Hilberg." At another point the narrator advises the interested reader to consult for himself the reports and analyses he wrote once upon a time for the Nazi Department of Security in today's archives. Or Aue complains that most of the conversations of his SS comrades about the massacre are always filled with the same old stereotyped anecdotes and platitudes. Aue also grumbles about the mass of historical literature and concludes passages, such as a description of the layout of Auschwitz, with the witty remark that further details are unnecessary on account of the copious amount of other literature on the subject.

Here we hear something which reaches beyond the contours of the narrator's character. And being a writer myself, this touch of malice makes me think of the man who spent five years researching his historicising steamroller. "Pour les morts" was the dedication Jonathan Littell gave his novel. How should the reader interpret this? The author cannot seriously believe that he really created a literary memorial for that Jewess he described as beautiful and half naked and whose head was made to explode in a fruit metaphor.

It can only refer to the other side. If he was born in 1913, Littell's SS man Max Aue, like most of his SS comrades in the novel who often bear the names and historical data suits of real SS criminals, will probably have met his maker by now. In his almost programmatic introduction, Aue complains about the poor quality of the accounts but a handful of them gave of their lives before they died. The novel is obviously dedicated first and foremost to those whose deaths in the war, whose executions or whose disappearances into the post-war world prevented them from giving a truthful account of their role in the great slaughter. This would mean that like a malicious sprite, this author was carrying the neglected literary works of those who remained silent into the afterlife behind them.

What does it mean for us when one of our post-war generation tailors himself such a narrator's skin from the abundance of historical material. Someone who dresses up so drastically must undress as an author in a very particular way. And if, like me, you follow him devoutly as an imagining reader, you play a role in this disrobing. Above all this applies to our contemporary relationship to evil. The ability of history and literature to cast spells is obviously starting to wane. The historical and historicising literary narrative have atrophied the very things they sustained for so long and which they should continue to sustain. The very essence of evil, evil par excellence, is flagging like an overused muscle. A large and important manifestation of the written word is starting to exhaust itself. And with it the narration of guilt and suffering is haemorrhaging tragic greatness. The responsibility of the criminals and the suffering of the victims is being ground down in the unrelenting mill of trivial literary realism to imbecilic misfortune, to a mere inauspiciousness of the hour. In the end the ill-fortune of the individual is a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even just on the wrong side. The recent-history novel - which with the disappearance of eye witnesses is becoming the historical novel, that great knowledge-producing machine of bourgeois literature - is beginning to rattle like an old mill.

Littell and his narrators know this. And witnessing the debilitation makes both readers and narrators embarrassed at first, then latently annoyed, increasingly ironic, and ultimately venomous. In the meantime, in the novel's plot the improbable swells, grotesque, fantastic elements take up more space. This is unquestionally beneficial to the appearance of evil. It frees itself from everything which supposedly lent it the last shreds of obviousness and becomes a thing roaming free. In a zombie-like state, Aue, his nerves shattered and recovering from a head wound, staggers through the historic scenery. The murders he committed first in France against his mother and step-father and then in the battle for Berlin, then against a gay lover and finally against his most important SS comrades already have a bizarre private character.

The text here is teetering on the edge of its genre. The reader realises how close this trivial late form of the historical novel has crept towards the type of psycho-thriller or splatter movie which tries to create effects using spurting blood, oozing intestines and cracking bones. In this genre it is precisely the randomness and senselessness of the excess that helps promote evil from a new to an absolute ranking. Anyone who makes it to the end will have arrived, together the novel's final images of violence, hopelessly in the mediated present. The central fascinating phenomenon of "Les Beinveillantes," the freeing of evil from the double spell cast by history and conventional, realistic narration, is very much a child of our time.

Pour les Morts? For the dead? Our SS men are dead. Their final wickedness, in any event, would be to ridicule our literary efforts from the afterlife. But evil seeks and finds other temples so that with silent dread and stammering horror it may be celebrated anew.

Georg Klein was born in Augsburg in 1953, and lives with his family in Berlin and East Friesland. His novel "Libidissi" was celebrated as one of the best books of 1998 and widely translated. In 1999 his book of short stories "Anrufung des Blinden Fisches" was published, and he won the Brüder Grimm Prize. In 2000 he won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from his novel "Barbar Rosa". would like to thank Georg Klein for his generosity in allowing us to publish his article free of charge.

This article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 16, 2008

Translation: lp

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