History has been described as an account written by the winners. The same could be said of much non-fiction, which usually is written from a particular viewpoint. Effective fiction, on the other hand, often emerges as truth.
That certainly is the case with The Kindly Ones (Harper), a novel written in French by Jonathan Littell, a New York-born American, 42, who was raised and educated in France. (The English translation is by Charlotte Mandell). It was published three years ago in France but released in English translation only this year in the United States. The Kindly Ones is an historical epic whose main fictional character is Dr. Maximilien Auer, a World War II German S.S. officer who after the war becomes a family man and businessman in France.
The book, written after prodigious historical and anthropological research, relates from Auer's vantage point the transition of Germany from a nation thought the most "civilized" and learned in Europe to one in which barbarism became national policy. The Holocaust and Hitler's racist theories inevitably become the centerpiece of the novel, which takes Auer, a well educated and detached intellectual, from a French/German childhood to participation in the S.S.'s death bureaucracy.
But there is much more to the novel than that. It explores intellectually the roots of totalitarianism in pre-World War II Europe, the cultural and political trends which led to horrific bloodshed, and the nature of man at any time in history. Factual descriptions are, suddenly, followed in the text by hallucinatory passages.
The book is hard to describe except to say that, while reading it, I had regular nightmares flowing from its content. On completing it, I was mentally exhausted. My only similar reaction in recent years was to a similar book, The White Hotel (Viking, 1981), by English poet and novelist D.M. Thomas. At the center of Thomas' novel, too, was the Holocaust. It proceeded from an account of therapy being administered by Sigmund Freud. Also filled with history, and including hallucinatory digressions, it captured as well the darker recesses which we would like to pretend do not exist.
The Kind Ones is the opposite of light summer reading. But it is a great book. I read even heavy prose quite rapidly. But I found myself absorbing every word and phrase in the book, lest I miss its smallest implications. Both books, based in the 20th century's most villainous events, are recognizable as truth.