In Other Words

The American in Paris

Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones)
By Jonathan Littell
904 pages, Paris: Gallimard, 2006 (in French)

To be free is to be a servant" was a saying in the Third Reich, and Maximilian Aue, the narrator of a new French memoir, exemplifies its truth. For though he lives in ostensible freedom in the France of the 1980s, he is in thrall to his bad conscience and the memories of his past. Aue’s former job and rank -- a legal scholar and a lieutenant-colonel in the Nazi regime -- made him a Geheimnisträger -- a "carrier of secrets."

And Aue reveals many of those secrets to the reader in the roughly 900 pages of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones). With considerably more resistance, he also reveals them to himself; for as reflective and intelligent as he is, he is also desperately self-deluding. The secrets are horrific, to be sure; this massive work amounts to a lengthy lamentation of personal and public crimes, of psychopathologies and alienation. Still, if Les Bienveillantes is a work of genius -- and it is -- it is not due to the hammer blows of horror repeatedly delivered. It is due to the methodical exploration of one of the Third Reich's most idealistic servants’ intricate descent into madness.

Yet the story of Max Aue is not some long-lost Nazi diary. It is one of the greatest accomplishments of postwar fiction. Max is the creation of an American author born 22 years after World War II ended. He is the 39-year-old Jonathan Littell, the French-raised, Yale-educated son of the American writer and journalist Robert Littell. And no one who meets the protagonist in Littell's pages will forget Aue's evolution from public sociopath to sadomasochistic, incestuous, bisexual psychopath.

In four decades of living on and off in Paris, I have never seen a book create such a stir in France as has Les Bienveillantes. In just a few months, it sold 600,000 copies -- comparable to a sale of 3 million in the United States (more than The Da Vinci Code in its first three months). For a rumored $40,000 advance, Gallimard, France's leading publisher, has already grossed millions.

But money is the least of it. The book has garnered France's two leading literary prizes (including the Goncourt) and has been on everybody's table and tongue for months. In part, this attention is due to Littell's claim to have written his magnum opus by hand in 120 days. He's also generated controversy for introducing Anglo-Saxon marketing customs (including a literary agent) into French publishing's closed garden, where no author has made big bucks since Jean-Paul Sartre. (Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, wrote a huffy editorial castigating Gallimard for agreeing to Littell's agent's terms, which included the "shocking" condition of retaining the foreign rights for his author.) But the main reason Littell has garnered so much attention is that this American (whose first book was written in English) chose to write the work in the language of Flaubert. That choice has tickled the French, as well it should: Their language has not produced a genuine literary work of this length, penetration, and power since Proust.

Littell has said he wanted to produce a close and hard look at a sensitive, intelligent man's engagement, his self-swallowing, into the unique, the gargantuan, the thoroughly unlikely Holocaust. But he also succeeded on another count: He makes you forget Jonathan Littell entirely, and instead lose yourself for dozens of hours in the mind of his book’s apparent creator -- in all his layered thinking, self-delusion, and erudition. The former SS officer deploys a vast range of citations from poetry and prose in six languages. Throughout, his narrative is set off by long, riveting, and plot-bearing ruminations on ideology and philosophy. Which is to say, Littell is no Tolstoy for the ponderousness of his extra-plot philosophizing, even if he is Dostoyevsky for the depth of his characterizations.

The revelation of Aue's past -- the book focuses on about 40 months from 1941 to 1945 -- sees him play subordinate but significant roles as an intelligence officer in the Ukraine, at Stalingrad and Auschwitz, and in Berlin. His story takes bizarre turns -- often shocking and horrifying, but also occasionally funny, as when Aue remarks, "I have often said that war and a prostate are God's two gifts to a man to compensate him for not being born a woman." Throughout, he interacts with a range of characters, including several Nazi vips: Eichmann, Himmler, and even Hitler.

Aue's gaze is potent and beguiling, though, and it does render his central conceit that he is the reader's "brother" all the more fascinating and disturbing. He claims to be this not in a chummy or intimate way, for he is distant and narcissistic. Rather, he intends to be our "brother" in daily and lifelong disillusionment and servitude. And like us, his brothers, he is fundamentally sympathetic; he stands somewhere on the human continuum between good and evil. Although he reduces the camps to the "reductio ad absurdum of everyday life," for example, he has himself half-convinced that his main problem is ingenuousness: "I never ceased deliberately swallowing the worm, then being surprised when my guts were yanked out of me by the hook," he recalls.

But Aue never comes close to climbing off the hook he has impaled himself upon, for his evil is anything but "banal," as he refers to the horrors of the Holocaust; it is polymorphous and perverse, profound in its ratiocination and writhing. Here was a young man who imbibed deeply of the supposed perfect clarity of ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer, and now, 10 years in, all around him he sees careerism, corruption, incompetence, and -- worst -- ambiguity.

The latter is clearest in Aue's inability to conclude what he "really thinks" about Jews. In a particularly revealing passage, he wonders if their eradication won’t actually be good for them: "Just so, spilling their lives, like throwing rice at a wedding, will teach them how to be generous, will teach them war. And the proof that this is already happening, that the Jews are learning their lesson, is Warsaw, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bialystok, where Jews have again become warriors; they've become killers like us. I find that beautiful. We have created an enemy worthy of us."

Things change, though. In the midst of a losing war, Aue asks: "How dare the Nazi elite bog itself down in vulgar Jew-killing? ... Should the Nazis' objective be the vulgar killing of people? Shouldn't it be, more cleanly, the control of populations?"

And so on, as Aue descends into madness. For the sake of his "mental hygiene," Aue claims he does not feel guilty. "God made me for love," he writes at one point. Of course, that is merely self-delusion. As pages fly by, we continually encounter scenes that horrify Aue even as he insists they don't. After the hanging of a young female partisan, Aue wonders if the girl climaxed as she died, or indeed if she had ever climaxed. Later, his wife acquires a disagreeable black cat, which, though it dislikes him, sleeps curled up on his chest. It lies on him "like a stifling weight, so that in my sleep I start to dream that I am being asphyxiated under a pile of rocks. And with my memories, it is rather the same."

The last paragraph of this magnum opus cinches the guilt and the self-ignorance, while explaining the book's classical Greek title (from the Aeschylus play, The Eumenides). Having just committed yet another shocking personal crime against a loved one, Aue sits alone in the bombed-out Berlin zoo, the Russians arriving in the distance. In a Gatsbyean vein, he laments, "I was sad without much knowing why. I felt the weight of the past like a blow, the pain of life and of inalterable memory. I sat there alone amidst the bodies, with the dying hippopotamus, with a few ostriches and all the [human] cadavers, alone with time and sadness and the pain of memory, the cruelty of my existence and of my future death. The Kindly Ones [Les Bienveillantes] had found me."

Thanks to the gifts of his young creator, Maximilian Aue lives: He belabors his points, bedazzles his superiors, bedevils his adversaries, and in his untoward but moving moments of innocence and naïveté (false and real), he beguiles his readers even as he numbs and repels them. But withal he lives. That is Littell's accomplishment; it is a masterpiece.

In Other Words

What's up, Kenya?

Kwani?,
Vol. 4, Fall 2006,
Nairobi

Kenya is a nation of rich oral tradition, where stories of history and ritual, tribalism and war, and God and nature have been passed down for centuries. Kenya, at only 40 years old, is also a very young country. The voices of 1960s intellectual leaders, trained in English by their colonial rulers, helped Kenya forge a new humanistic, postcolonial identity and committed it to paper. Writers such as Ngugi wa Thiongo and Grace Ogot told brutal stories of Kenya's struggle under colonial rule. It was the birth of a literary movement, one that is still heralded today.

These days, young Kenyans have little tangible connection to the literary references of their colonial past. Today's great exploiters of Africa are Africans themselves. The presidencies of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi left Kenya an economic and cultural desert by pillaging the country's wealth and silencing its greatest assets: its thinkers. For more than two decades under Moi's dictatorial regime, freedom of speech was denied, novelists were jailed, and even political cartoonists were censored. The freedom of self-criticism and self-examination only arrived when a new government took power in 2002, and a new generation of literature was born.

It was in this political environment that Kwani? was created. Three years ago, 35-year-old writer Binyavanga Wainaina was in an online chatroom with other young Kenyan scribes when someone raised the idea of putting their own words and grievances in print. With funding from the Ford Foundation, Wainaina founded Kwani?, an independent literary magazine that publishes everything from poetry and cartoons to short stories and nonfiction. So far, the magazine has received an enthusiastic response. Kwani? -- Swahili slang for "what's up?" -- has published three annual issues with more than 12,000 total copies sold. Its fourth issue will hit newsstands later this year. And its Web site, www.kwani.org, is flourishing, too.

Kwani? is unafraid to tackle hot-button topics, publishing stories about sexuality, politics, poverty, and death. It is the voice of a new generation that doesn't address the postcolonial topics that older Kenyan writers grappled with. "Our parents had a straight idea of who they were and what they needed to do," says Wainaina. "Things are different now. I don't know what kind of patriot I am, [so] I publish things that start conversations."

Whether it is brilliant literature is arguable. Wainaina may have won the coveted Caine Prize in 2002 (known as the "African Booker Prize") for his short story "Discovering Home," about a young man's return to Kenya after a long absence. But many of the other writers are less polished, and their articles often read more like personal journal entries than moving prose. Critics and loyal followers alike often refer to it as pop culture rather than a literary magazine. But pop culture has its place. This creative writing experiment has created an outlet in which fresh Kenyan writers can hone their skills. With stories written in a mixture of Swahili, English, and sheng (local slang), it is especially appealing to a younger audience. "We need to try out new ways of making our realities and fantasies come alive in print and spoken word, in any and every language we can," says Wainaina.

Published in July last year, the third volume of Kwani? tackled some of the political and social issues plaguing Kenya, topics that once rarely found their way into print. When a high-profile corruption scandal erupted -- in which billions of dollars were stolen from the national treasury by politicians who had set up fake companies -- Kwani? profiled the graft whistleblower in another major corruption case. The travesty had been halfheartedly tried in the courts, much to the consternation of the public. Daily newspaper coverage of the trial was spotty, but the magazine's profile gave voice to the frustration that millions of Kenyans were feeling. And it gave them a hero. It was a story that probably wouldn’t have been told otherwise.

The autumn issue of Kwani? will also be a response to the political climate. It goes even further than before, opening the door to subjects such as rape, which is currently a controversial topic as Kenya's parliament recently passed a Sexual Offences Bill. It's not an easy task in a country where some leaders have an empty appreciation of women's rights. For example, legislator Paddy Ahenda recently stated in parliament that Kenyan women always say "no," but they mean "yes." Kenya remains a patriarchal society where the changing roles of men and women, combined with poverty and unemployment, have led to a rise in violence, alcoholism, and divorce.

Kwani? may be an experiment that's still in its infancy, but it is an essential one. Kenyans have started demanding basic human rights and accountability from their leaders. The magazine's provocative language, with its underground slang and controversial prose, creates the kind of dinner-table dialogue that inspires youth and challenges adults. During the early days of postcolonialism, literature drove the message home that Kenyans were not slaves or second-class citizens. That message has now broadened to include equality in the larger sense, the human sense. The birth pains of this movement may be awkward, self-conscious, and sometimes unsophisticated, but they are also powerful and raw, as Kenyans have once again found their voice.