Literature of atrocity
``Tour de force” is a much overused term to describe fiction, but occasionally you encounter a work that fits the description. Having just finished the most shocking novel I have ever read, Jonathon Littell’s ``The Kindly Ones,” I am stunned.
The 984-page epic has been massively praised: It won France’s two top literary prizes (doubly impressive, given that Littell is an American); noted historian Anthony Beevor has named it one the five top novels of World War II.
It has also been massively reviled, with some critics labeling it a pornography of atrocity. At these naysayers, former Simon and Schuster editor Michael Korda snarls: ``If you don’t have the strength to read it, tough shit.”
``The Kindly Ones” is an odyssey through history’s bloodiest events. Told in the first person, Littell’s antagonist is Dr Maximilian Aue, an unrepentant SS officer. Aue is a member of the Einsatzcommando which massacred 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar; he endures the siege of Stalingrad and air raids on the Reich; studies, considers and helps create the machinery for the ``Final Solution”; then proceeds to the extermination factory, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the fall of Berlin.
A scholar and bureaucrat of questionable sanity, Aue is obsessed with scatology and is an incestuous catamite who carries out a grisly matricide. The reader is challenged to decide what is more repellent: The small picture ― the perversities of the protagonist (a creation of fiction) ― or the big picture ― the colossal slaughter carried out by the Third Reich (most definitely not fiction)?
Littell’s research, which includes such details as the optimal composition of an SS firing squad to minimize killing’s psychological impact on the shooters ― seems faultless. His experience as an aid worker in Bosnia and Chechnya has almost certainly infiltrated both his psyche and this novel.
It is not easy reading ― the murderers have no remorse, the victims, no dignity ― but is impossible to put down. One aspect of Littell’s mastery is that while his protagonist would be, in any other literary setting, spectacularly repellent, he is considerably more sympathetic than some of the real-life characters, such as Eichman and Himmler, who populate this book.
The only novel I can think of that compares to ``The Kindly Ones” is Cormac MacCarthy’s ode to violence, ``Blood Meridian,” set amid what some consider the ``American holocaust” ― the colonization of the West ― and which has won plaudits for both its prose and its historical accuracy. But ``The Kindly Ones” is, to my mind, a more thought-provoking work.
And this is why fiction resounds as stridently as history ― or even journalism.
While several Holocaust victims ― notably Eli Weisel and Primo Levi ― have written compellingly about their experiences and of the perpetrators, only one mass murderer has penned his memoirs. Rudolph Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, wrote ``Death Dealer” during his 1946-47 trial for genocide (He was subsequently hung). His memoir is crude and leaves one questioning his honesty.
Journalist Gitta Sereny’s ``Into That Darkness” ― her dissection of the inner life of Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl ― is a masterly (and troubling) piece of reporting, yet by sticking only to the facts she uncovers, she cannot extend her horizons the way a novelist can.
The resultant blank spaces in history and the human psyche leave us with few keys to comprehend evil doers and evil episodes. Littell does not provide an answer; he does provide insight.
So what has this got to do with Korea?
While the horrors of the 1950-53 Korean War cannot compare to the Nazis’ industrialized annihilation of European Jewry, horrors there were aplenty. I vividly recall a British commando telling me of one particularly revolting episode of a human booby trap laid by retreating North Koreans. In a field of mutilated, naked cadavers, one had had a live hand grenade stuffed up the rectum; whoever moved the corpse would be blown to pieces.
Some of the war’s nastiest episodes ― notably, massacres of civilians by South Korean forces ― were taboo here for decades.
The closure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea with its work less than half done has slammed a door that had admitted an all-too-brief ray of light to illuminate those grim secrets. The fact that the commission was shuttered by the current administration does not argue well for the progress of social transparency in South Korea.
And there may be even darker things.
When, and if, North Korea is finally pried open, I suspect that what is uncovered will be worse than our worst imaginings. Such was the case not only in Nazi Germany, but also in China after the ``Great Leap Forward,” Cambodia after ``Year Zero,” and more recently, Srebrenicza.
Personally, I possess neither the fortitude nor the talent to do for the Korean War and North Korea what Littell has done for the Holocaust with ``The Kindly Ones,” but an ambitious novel on the cataclysm of 1950-53, and its long, dark aftermath, is overdue.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.