“I am a man like you," cries Maximilian Aue, at the outset of this bulging, lurid tale. "I am just like you!"
He might be overstating things a bit, especially as a former SS officer who took seriously the task of improving the Final Solution's efficiency. For this and other transgressions — of which there are many in this unwieldy, fascinating, impressively researched novel — Max is unrepentant.
The Kindly Ones draws the reader back to the period between 1941 and 1945, when Max participated in or was witness to some of the most hideous killing in history. There is, at the outset, a moment where Max seems as shocked as the reader will become. At a castle in Ukraine, a pile of bloated corpses yellows with age. Max struggles not to vomit. "This smell," he recalls, "was the beginning and the end of everything, the very signification of our existence."
But this sentiment gives way to the tidal pull that sucks Max into the heart of action and into a wave of reminiscences of his cruel mother, abandoning father and the untoward, masochistic relationship he shared with his twin sister, Una.
And yet, The Kindly Ones is a tawdry, familiar tale in comparison to recent novels that covered similar ground, such as William T. Vollmann's magisterial Europe Central, which visited, in language beautiful and inventive, the same question Littell bothers to a froth: How is evil of such magnitude committed by everyday people? By comparison, The Kindly Ones often reads like a beefed-up thriller; the metaphorical steroids of Greek mythology and intellectual history give it muscles merely for show.
Each section follows a vaguely musical theme, yet the slurry of research occasionally goes uninterrupted but for agitated vignettes of Max's couplings with young men. Ultimately, these are slim rewards in a tale where an avalanche of detail can drown out a reader's sensation that Max's brand of evil isn't just banal, but a cliche.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta.