The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

The "autobiography" of a former SS officer, who's looking back on his time in the war, and trying to write an honest account of what happened, and why he behaved as he did.

I got this because it was referenced in HHhH and sounded good. And I think it probably is a good book but it was quite hard to read, and so I gave up after realising I'd not touched it for a couple of weeks.

Part of the problem is that the writing style is quite unfriendly: sentences and paragraphs go on for a long time and there's little formatting to help parse dialogue: every page looks like a forbidding block of text. So there don't seem to be any places you can stop and take a breath. Which might not be so bad if it were compelling, but it's more worthy than page-turning I think.

He's obviously done his research, and there is loads of historical detail in there which, so far as I can tell, is accurate. And I think it's an interesting premise to have the narrator try to review his life and misdeeds in a dispassionate way - I think the message seems to be that we'd all be capable of doing dreadful things. And he does write well. I made a note to mention the "butterfly quote on page 3" before I took the book back to the library, so am using Amazon's "look inside" to see that. I think this is the bit I meant:

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?
It goes on, and I'm not sure how much I meant to quote. But looking at the text reminds me of how intimidating the experience was: a solid wall of words with very little white space to give pause for breath.

Other reviewers comment on the level of graphic detail describing the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in general, and by the narrator of this book in particular. I'm not sure if these get worse as the book progresses: there were some nasty things but I didn't find them to be gratuitous.

Another thing I noted which I can't quote directly because it's not included in the Amazon preview was an observation he made about the number of Jews killed: he took estimates for how many had died over the course of the war and came up with a daily figure, which led him to conclude that the total number of troop losses the US suffered in Vietnam (50,000) was equivalent to the number of Jews who died every 13 days, 21 hours and 25 minutes throughout WW2.

Gave up: 19-Mar-2013

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