The Kindly Ones
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2009 Jonathan Littell
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-06-135345-1
Chapter One Toccata
Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you'll retort, and I don't want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long - a lot of things happened, after all - but perhaps you're not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck you'll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: you'll see that this concerns you. Don't think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years I've made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae - what do we do with such an appalling realization? Suicide, of course, is always an option. But to tell the truth suicide doesn't tempt me much. Of course I have thought about it over the years; and if I were to resort to it, here's how I'd go about it: I'd hold a grenade right up against my heart and go out in a bright burst of joy. A little round grenade whose pin I'd delicately pluck out before I released the catch, smiling at the little metallic noise of the spring, the last sound I'd hear, aside from the heartbeat in my ears. And then at last happiness, or in any case peace, as the shreds of my flesh slowly dripped off the walls. Let the cleaning women scrub them off, that's what they're paid for, the poor girls. But as I said, suicide doesn't tempt me. I don't know why, either - an old philosophical streak perhaps, which keeps me thinking that after all we're not here to have fun. To do what, then? I have no idea, to endure, probably, to kill time before it finally kills you. And in that case, writing is as good an occupation as anything else, when you have time to spare. Not that I have all that much spare time, I am a busy man; I have what is called a family, a job, hence responsibilities; all that takes time, and it doesn't leave much to recount one's memories. Particularly since memories are what I have quite a lot of. I am a veritable memory factory. I will have spent my whole life manufacturing memories, even though these days I'm being paid to manufacture lace. In fact, I could just as easily not write. It's not as if it's an obligation. After the war I remained a discreet man; thank God I have never been driven, unlike some of my former colleagues, to write my Memoirs for the purpose of self-justification, since I have nothing to justify, or to earn a living, since I have a decent enough income as it is. Once, I found myself in Germany on a business trip, I was meeting the head of a big lingerie company, to sell him some lace. Some old friends had recommended me to him; so, without having to ask any questions, we both knew where we stood with each other. After our discussion, which went quite well, he got up, took a book down from his shelf and handed it to me. It was the posthumous memoirs of Hans Frank, the Generalgouverneur of Poland; it was called Facing the Gallows. "I got a letter from Frank's widow," he said. "She had the manuscript, which he wrote after his trial, published at her own expense; now she's selling the book to provide for her children. Can you imagine that? The widow of the Generalgouverneur! - I ordered twenty copies from her, to use as gifts. And I advised all my department chiefs to buy one. She wrote me a moving letter of thanks. Did you know him?" I assured him I hadn't, but that I would read the book with interest. Actually I had run into Hans Frank once, briefly, maybe I'll tell you about it later on, if I have the courage or the patience. But just then it would have made no sense talking about it. The book in any case was awful - confused, whining, steeped in a curious kind of religious hypocrisy. These notes of mine might be confused and awful too, but I'll do my best to be clear; I can assure you that they will at least be free of any form of contrition. I do not regret anything: I did my work, that's all; as for my family problems, which I might also talk about, they concern no one but me; and as for the rest, I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself, I was off-balance, and anyhow the whole world was toppling around me, I wasn't the only one who lost his head, admit it. Also, I'm not writing to feed my widow and children, I'm quite capable of providing for them. No, if I have finally decided to write, it really is probably just to pass the time, and also, possibly, to clear up one or two obscure points, for you perhaps and for myself. What's more I think it will do me good. It's true that I have been in a rather glum mood of late. The constipation, probably. A distressing and painful problem, and a somewhat new one for me; it used to be just the opposite. For a long time I had to go to the toilet three or four times a day; now, once a week would be a blessing. I've been reduced to taking enemas, a repulsive procedure, albeit effective. Forgive me for wearying you with such sordid details: but I do have a right to complain a little. And if you can't bear this you'd better stop right here. I'm no Hans Frank, and I can't stand mincing words. I want to be precise, as far as I am able. In spite of my shortcomings, and they have been many, I have remained someone who believes that the only things indispensable to human life are air, food, drink, and excretion, and the search for truth. The rest is optional.
Some time ago, my wife brought home a black cat. She probably thought it would make me happy; of course she never asked my opinion. She must have suspected I would have flatly refused, so presenting me with the fait accompli was safer. And once it was there, nothing could be done about it, the grandchildren would cry, etc. But this was a very unpleasant cat. Whenever I tried to pet it, to show my goodwill, it would slip away to sit on the windowsill and stare at me with its yellow eyes; if I tried to pick it up and hold it, it would scratch me. At night, on the other hand, it would come and curl up in a ball on my chest, a stifling weight, and in my sleep I would dream I was being smothered beneath a heap of stones. With my memories, it's been more or less the same. The first time I decided to set them down in writing, I took a leave of absence. That was probably a mistake. Things were going well, though: I had bought and read quite a few books on the subject, in order to refresh my memory; I had drawn up organizational charts, detailed chronologies, and so on. But with this leave of absence I suddenly had a lot of free time, and I began thinking. What's more it was fall, a bitter grey rain was stripping the leaves off the trees, and I was slowly overcome with dread. I realized that thinking is not always a good idea.
I should have known. My colleagues consider me a calm, collected, thoughtful man. Calm, certainly; but often during the day my head begins to rage, with 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 carnage, blood filling the cracks between the cobblestones, gobbets of flesh splattered on the walls or smashing through the windows to land in the Sunday soup, I hear cries, the groans of people with their limbs torn off like the legs of an insect plucked by a curious little boy, the bewilderment of the survivors, a strange, earsplitting silence, the beginning of a long fear. Calm? Yes, I remain calm, whatever happens, I don't let anything show, I stay quiet, impassive, like the empty windows of burnt-out cities, like the little old men on park benches with their canes and their medals, like the faces of the drowned just beneath the surface of the water, never to be found. I couldn't break this terrifying calm even if I wanted to. I'm not the sort of man who loses his nerve at the drop of a hat, I know how to behave. But it weighs on me too. The worst thing is not necessarily those images I've just described; fantasies like these have lived in me for a long time, ever since my childhood probably, or in any case long before I actually ended up in the heart of the slaughterhouse. The war, in that sense, was only a confirmation, and I have gotten used to these little scenarios, I take them as a pertinent commentary on the vanity of things. No, what turned out to be so disturbing, so oppressive, was to have nothing to do but sit around and think. Ask yourselves: You yourselves, what do you think of, through the course of a day? Very few things, actually. Drawing up a systematic classification of your everyday thoughts would be easy: practical or mechanical thoughts, planning your actions and your time (example: setting the coffee to drip before brushing your teeth, but toasting the bread afterwards, since it doesn't take as long); work preoccupations; financial anxieties; domestic problems; sexual fantasies. I'll spare you the details. At dinner, you contemplate the aging face of your wife, so much less exciting than your mistress, but a fine woman otherwise, what can you do, that's life, so you talk about the latest government scandal. Actually you couldn't care less about the latest government scandal, but what else is there to talk about? Eliminate those kinds of thoughts, and you'll agree there's not much left. There are of course other moments. Unexpectedly, between two laundry detergent ads, there's a pre-war tango, "Violetta" say, and in a great surge you see the nocturnal lapping of the river and the Chinese lanterns around the open-air dance floor, you smell the faint odor of sweat on a joyful woman's skin; at the entrance to a park, a child's smiling face reminds you of your son's just before he started to walk; in the street, a ray of sunlight pierces through the clouds and brightens the broad leaves, the off-white trunk of a plane tree: and suddenly you think of your childhood, of the schoolyard at recess where you used to play war games, shouting with terror and happiness. You have just had a human thought. But this is a rare thing.
Yet if you put your work, your ordinary activities, your everyday agitation, on hold, and devote yourself solely to thinking, things go very differently. Soon things start rising up, in heavy, dark waves. At night, your dreams fall apart, unfurl and proliferate, and when you wake they leave a fine, bitter film at the back of your mind, which takes a long time to dissolve. Don't misunderstand me: I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don't want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that. Even a man who has never gone to war, who has never had to kill, will experience what I'm talking about. All the meanness, the cowardice, the lies, the pettiness that afflict everyone will come back to haunt him. No wonder men have invented work, alcohol, meaningless chatter. No wonder televisions sell so well. I quickly cut short my leave of absence, it was better that way. I had plenty of time left to scribble, at lunchtime or in the evening after the secretaries had gone home.
A brief interruption while I go and vomit, then I'll continue. That's another one of my numerous little afflictions: from time to time my meals come back up, sometimes right away, sometimes later on, for no reason, just like that. It's an old problem, I've had it since the war, since the fall of 1941 to be precise, it started in the Ukraine, in Kiev I think, or maybe Zhitomir. I'll talk about that too probably. In any case, I have long since gotten used to it: I brush my teeth, down a little shot of alcohol, and continue what I was doing. Let's get back to my memories. I bought myself a stack of copybooks, the large ones, quadrille-ruled, which I keep in a locked drawer at my office. Before, I used to jot my notes down on index cards, also quadrille-ruled; now I've decided to start all over and forge ahead. I'm not really sure why. Certainly not for the edification of my progeny. If at this very moment I were suddenly to keel over, from a heart attack, say, or a stroke, and my secretaries were to take the key and open this drawer, they'd have a shock, the poor things, and my wife too: the index cards alone would be more than enough. They'd have to burn every last scrap quickly to avoid a scandal. It would be all the same to me, I'd be dead. And in the end, even though I'm addressing you, it's not for you that I am writing.
My office is a pleasant place to write, airy, sober, peaceful. White, almost bare walls, a glass cabinet for samples; and across from my desk a long bay window that looks out onto the factory floor. Despite the double-glazed glass, the incessant clatter of the Leavers looms resonates through the room. When I want to think, I leave my work table and go stand in front of the window; I gaze down at the looms lined up below, at the sure, precise movements of the workers, and let myself be lulled. Sometimes I go down and stroll among the machinery. The room is dark, the filthy windows are tinted blue, since lace is fragile and sensitive to light, and this bluish light soothes my mind. I like to lose myself for a while in the monotonous, syncopated clanking that fills the space, a metallic, obsessive two-step beat. The looms always impress me. They are made of cast iron, were once painted green, and each one weighs ten tons. Some of them are very old, they stopped being made a long time ago; I have the spare parts made to order; after the war, electricity replaced steam power, but the looms themselves haven't been touched. I never go near them, to keep from getting dirty: all these moving parts have to be constantly lubricated, but oil of course would ruin the lace, so we use graphite, a fine black powder dusted over the moving parts of the mechanism with an old sock, swung like a censer. It turns the lace black and coats the walls, as well as the floor, the machinery, and the men who supervise it. Even though I don't often get my hands dirty, I know these great machines well. The first looms were British and a jealously guarded secret; a few were smuggled into France just after the Napoleonic wars by workers fleeing the excise duties. They were modified to produce lace by a man from Lyon, Jacquard, who added a series of perforated strips to them to determine the pattern. Cylinders down below feed the thread upwards; in the heart of the loom, five thousand bobbins, the soul, are slotted into a carriage; then a catch-bar (the English term has been carried over into French) grips and sets this carriage swinging front to back, with a loud hypnotic clapping. The threads are guided laterally, according to a complex choreography encoded within some five or six hundred Jacquard strips, by copper combs sealed onto lead, and are thus woven into knots; a swan's neck carries the rake up; finally the lace appears, gossamer-like, disturbingly beautiful under its coat of graphite, slowly rolled onto a drum, fixed at the top of the Leavers.
Work in the factory runs according to a strict principle of sexual segregation: the men design the patterns, punch the strips, set up the chains, supervise the looms and manage the supply racks surrounding them; their wives and daughters, even today, remain bobbin threaders, bleachers, menders, taperers and folders. Tradition runs strong. Our tulle-makers, up here, are something of a proletarian aristocracy. Apprenticeship is lengthy, the work delicate; a century ago, the weavers of Calais came to work in buggies, wearing top-hats, and called the boss by his first name. Times have changed. The war ruined the industry, despite a few looms kept working for Germany. Everything had to be started again from scratch; whereas before the war four thousand looms used to operate, today, in the North, only about three hundred are left. Still, during the post-war boom, tulle-makers were able to buy themselves cars before many a banker did. But my workers don't call me by my first name. I don't think my workers like me. That's all right, I'm not asking them to like me. And I don't like them either. We work together, that's all. When an employee is conscientious and hard-working, when the lace that comes out of his loom doesn't need much mending, I give him a bonus at the end of the year; if someone comes to work late, or drunk, I punish him. On that basis, we understand each other.