I’ve been reading “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell for a couple weeks now (it’s 975 pages!) and every bit of it is filled with contrasting images. From the Ukrainian forests overrun by Nazis, and used to hide the slaughtered “enemies,” to the garish nightlife of war-arrogant Berlin’s privileged aristocracy, Littell is intent on showing his audience life in Nazi Germany through the war years.
At first I was disconcerted with the story — not for its prose, or the character; both are compelling works of literary imagination — because the description of the atrocities inflicted on the civilian populations by the SS killers was a lesson in repetition of the striking image. This were as much a blitzkrieg to the senses of readers as war is to soldiers. Then he tempered these images by getting into the mind of the narrator, whose own careful observation of other soldiers brought about a picture that goes far beyond any film or war-time documentary can illustrate.
This is where “The Kindly Ones” took hold of me, and has not let go since. And here is found the focus of this column: the need for the author to get the thoughts of his character at just the right time; sometimes woven into the descriptive narrative, and other times coming abruptly, through memory or sense-triggering. Here’s where we writers can draw the reader along, after whipping her back and forth through the carefully developed labyrinth of images created to tell the story.
For example, after several such “actions” in which this narrator-cum-SS-Officer has watch in horror how (this is early in the war) regular soldiers were used to shoot civilians point-blank in the head and let them fall into a hastily dug trench, he sees what this has done to soldiers:
As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister, or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit.
Without this internal struggle, this book would have quickly become a “war book” filled with dirty language, “band of brothers” camaraderie, and sentimental feelings for home or family (or both). But this SS Officer is not so different from officers in other armies who have witnessed home-grown atrocities, and this makes all the difference.
In another episode, on the Russian front at Stalingrad as the Nazis are surrounded and being pummeled by the counter-attacking Russian army, under conditions known only to rats, weasels, and other rodents, our newly promoted (to captain) narrator is about to meet a partisan officer on the front lines, hiding in a room whose walls look like Swiss cheese from all the holes blasted through them:
What could this officer, cut off from everything, teach me that I hadn’t already read in some report? True, I could see for myself the miserable condition of the men, their fatigue, their distress, but that, too, I already knew. I had vaguely thought, on my way over there, about a discussion on the political involvement of the Croat soldiers with Germany, on Ustashi ideology: now I understood there was no sense in that; it was worse than futile, and this Oberleutnant would bprobably not have known how to respond; in his head there was room only for food, his home, his family, captivity, or his imminent death. All of a sudden I was tired and disgusted, I felt hypocritical, idiotic. “Merry Christmas,” the officer said to me as he shook my hand, smiling.
These paragraphs are instructive for any writer: in a world where so much imagery is dark, colored only by the red of blood from torn apart soldiers, we have the thoughts of an intellectual-turned-soldier to interrupt our own horror (a living nightmare few of us have witnessed). This is the humanity we seek within war’s theater, often left out, and unexplained; and these are the thoughts that make fiction the truth of humanity’s struggle with itself, no matter what conditions of splendor or squalor, heralded victory or murderous failure.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.