Feature

‘The Kindly Ones’: Sympathetic to Nazis?

Why a book about a remorseless former Nazi officer is polarizing critics

Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones, which was translated from the French and released in the U.S. Tuesday, said Motoko Rich in The New York Times, “is meeting a dramatically polarized critical response.” And it’s not too surprising: The book is “a fictionalized memoir of a remorseless former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage, and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.”

But it’s “unashamedly literary and ever so transgressive,” said Steve Jelbert in The Quietus, which is “the stuff publishers love.” And “as this insane, insanely long novel plods on,” it “becomes ever more compelling and hallucinatory.” Littell may not have intended it, but this “sprawling lump of a book is more relevant than ever.”

Don’t get carried away, said Robert Manne in The Australian. The book does have some “virtues.” But the leader character’s voice in The Kindly Ones is the only one we hear—“we may learn from him a very great deal about what happened in the Holocaust, but morally speaking we are in the dark.”

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