Saturday, April 11, 2009

International Super Hype

With the economic meltdown there is constant talk of the publishing world collapsing, but you wouldn’t know it to read the reviews. The latest big books are still promoted and heralded--winning prestigious prizes in France, no less, a sure sign of literary inflation--and bid upon at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the book lovers get caught up in these things (I am one, usually). The latest hype is for Jonathan Littell’s, The Kindly Ones (at the Complete Review here, another here, and Laila Lalami's L. A. Times review, here.)

I've read the glowing and scathing reviews, encomiums and apercus, enough to be marginally intrigued to look into the book. The publisher's (Harper Collins) page provides a generous sample to read. Along with the mixed reviews, the opening pages were enough to put this reader off.

Ruth Franklin’s review in The New Republic sums it up: "The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject [...]"

It's subject is a one size fits all Nazi cog (to use Franklin's term) who yet revels in his twisted personal depravity, explaining his complicity in the mass killings because he's just like every other human being on the planet.

My distaste for the subject matter and its execution are clear. Franklin talks of the Nazi functionaries: “They were, the overwhelming majority of them, unremarkable men, "small cogs" in a killing machine, who showed little initiative of their own but were prepared to obey orders unquestioningly and then go to dinner.”

Franklin talks about how we want to attribute to men capable of this behavior the embodiment of “absolute evil.” But there are shades of gray, maybe what Littell is attempting to portray; the only problem is that it Littell's character sounds like he is clearly over the edge, definitely not in a kindly margin. (For some reason this called to mind an interesting spectacle on Nightline a few weeks ago where Deepak Chopra squared off with two Christian fundamentalists to argue, “Does Satan Exist?”) 

I think what unnerves about the subject and its fictionalization is that it’s taking the crime of the century and treating it as if it were something less than what it was. This can be seen to attempt to diminish the crime through the humanizing of (one of) its proponents.

However, when it’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, there is a resistance to fictionalizing an event that should have never happened. Any sympathy for such a character is seen to ameliorate or apologize for the horrific reality. Unfortunately, that’s also what makes it a controversial--and challenging--choice.

As with any book, there is probably a great deal of calculation for the writer to write what might be controversial, what might catch on. If you’ve got the ability, then you tackle it. I understand this. This is the scaling of a great peak. You don’t take it on unless you can stay with it. So, no criticism to the writer his accomplishment there.

In this case however, I'm grateful to let the reviewers wade through this 900 page monster.

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