LIANE HANSEN, host:
One of the most controversial novels published in recent years has arrived on bookstore shelves across America. "The Kindly Ones" is a fictional first-person account of a cultured German who recounts his earlier life as a brutal Nazi SS officer. He loves Bach, cherishes great literature, commits incest with his sister and may have murdered his mother.
The author, Jonathan Littell, wrote the novel in French and it's earned France's top two literary prizes and many more denunciations. Be advised, portions of this report are inappropriate for children and some listeners may find descriptions of the book's graphic content disturbing.
Here's Frank Browning.
FRANK BROWNING: Plainly put, this thousand-page novel of the Holocaust provokes passionate responses.
Ms. TANAH RONSON(ph): Fabulous writing, fabulous style and I think it's one of the greatest books I've ever read in my life.
BROWNING: That's Tanah Ronson, who lost family members in the Holocaust.
Mr. EDOUARD HUSSEN (Holocaust Scholar): His hero is, on an ethical point of view, really disgusting.
BROWNING: And that's Edouard Hussen, one of France's and the world's most eminent scholars of the Holocaust. For many readers and critics, the most startling element of "The Kindly Ones" is not merely the graphic descriptions of slaughter, it is, instead, the rather quiet avuncular tone of the narrator, Max Aue, who begins his story as a memoir decades after the war. Having escaped prosecution as a Nazi, he passed as an ordinary Frenchman and became the manager of a fine lace factory in northern France.
Unidentified Man: (as Max Aue) My colleagues consider me a calm, collected, thoughtful man. Calm, certainly, but often during the day my head begins to rage of the dull roar of a crematorium. I talk, I hold conversations, I make decisions just like everyone else. But standing at a bar with my glass of brandy, I imagine a man coming in with a shotgun and opening fire.
At the movies or at the theater, I picture a live grenade rolling under the seats. In a town square on a public holiday I see a car packed with explosives blowing up, the afternoon festivities turned into a carnage.
BROWNING: This passage was read by an actor. Its author, Jonathan Littell, refuses categorically to read from his work, and he loathes talking about it. He finished the book six years and was as startled as anyone else when it sold 300,000 copies in three months - a figure now grown to a million in France alone. To historians who accuse him of inaccurately characterizing the Nazi SS or to others who say Max Aue is too thoughtful to be believed, Littell shrugs his shoulders.
Mr. JONATHAN LITTELL (Author, "The Kindly Ones"): That's the reader's problem, it's not my problem. I don't get mixed up in other people's debate about the book. You know, some people hate it, some people like it. Whatever.
BROWNING: He flatly rejects the notion that "The Kindly Ones" is historical fiction. Instead, he sees the work as phantasmagorical, more in the tradition of William Burroughs than Flaubert or Tolstoy, to whom he has also been compared.
Mr. LITTELL: The gamble I took, which one can agree with or not, was to base Max on myself, so I was kind of projecting myself in that position. And so the basic idea was, you know, what would I had been like had I been born German in 1913, instead of American boy in America in 1967.
BROWNING: But Holocaust historian Edouard Hussen says that kind of intellectualization denies how the SS's Einsatzgruppen extermination teams really worked.
Mr. HUSSEN: The hero, Max Aue, wouldn't have stayed more than two days in the Einsatzgruppen if he had been an SS officer at that time because he is always asking himself always asking himself why he's here, never acting, very seldom shooting at the victims. Somebody like Max Aue would have been sent back to Berlin to do some bureaucratic work, but he couldn't have stayed there.
BROWNING: Still more disturbing to Hussen, a Catholic, is what he sees as the utter absence of empathy with the victims of the SS. On top of that, there are Max Aue's sexual obsessions and the descriptions of the sexual mutilation of the Nazi's prisoners.
Mr. HUSSEN: The constant voyeurism about the victims, I found it unbearable the whole time. Because I've been meeting witnesses of that time. Ukrainians, who sometimes helped the Germans for small jobs preparing the execution and so on, and all these people would never have spoken of the victims as Max Aue is doing. Just describing the corpses in such a voyeuristic way, it's impossible for them. And they wouldn't have spoken of them without any respect.
BROWNING: For Littell, who is himself Jewish, today's moral necessity is not to comprehend or bring empathy to the victims. Fifty years of Holocaust history have demonstrated their stories, he says. Rather, it is the perpetrators whom we must understand, including the possibility that we, too, ordinary Americans, ordinary French — like ordinary Germans — are also capable of the most grotesque acts.
Mr. LITTELL: I'm not sure that even good bourgeois family men, you know, with their wives and kids back home that are sociologically completely adapted, normal people, once they get into this kind of situation, where they have absolute power of life or death over people that their bosses tell them are not human beings and they can do anything they want with them, a lot of people are going to go into very strange mental places.
BROWNING: Littell spent five years writing "The Kindly Ones" and another decade before, researching it, including working for seven years on humanitarian aid missions. He was in Bosnia and in Chechnya, each of which had its own sexually perverse extermination campaigns. He says he wasn't ready to write the book until after he had witnessed the grotesque firsthand. And that also changed profoundly how he sees America.
Mr. LITTELL: Abu Ghraib is a good example. You find all these figures, the sexualization of violence, the laughter of the killer. The photos are extraordinary. The photo of Graner smiling over the corpse of this man who died under torture. And there are countless other examples.
BROWNING: But it's, in part, the complicity of ordinary Americans and what Jonathan Littell sees as the consumer culture that insulates them from global suffering that's led Littell to live and raise his family outside of the United States.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.