Jonathan Littell in America

US book-buyers look unkindly on The Kindly Ones

Publishers Weekly in the US has an interesting story about the commercial fate of Jonathan Littell's gigantic fictional tour d'horizon of the killing fields of the Eastern Front in 1941, The Kindly Ones.

As everybody knows by now, when Littell published his novel in French (as Les Bienveillantes) in 2006, it was an immediate and almost unprecedented commercial success, selling somewhere in the region of 300,000 copies in a little over three months, snagging two of the major French literary prizes, and causing the publisher Gallimard to requisition paper earmarked for a translation of the next Harry Potter novel. PW reports that sales of the translation in the States have been puny in comparison. It has sold just 17,000 copies since it was published in March (HarperCollins apparently ordered an initial print-run of 150,000).

The piece goes on to suggest that The Kindly Ones has suffered by comparison with "another novel set during Hitler's reign and published on the same day", the translation of German writer Hans Fallada's 1947 tale of the resistance to Nazism Every Man Dies Alone. It also blames the reviews for the poor sales of Littell's novel, not least Michiko Kakutani's demolition of it in the New York Times. Deploying her flair for destructive precis, Kakutani called the book a "a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies". Ruth Franklin echoed that view in her review in the New Republic, calling it "one of the most repugnant books I have ever read", principally on account of Littell's daring to, as he once put it, "get inside the skin of a Nazi" (the novel is narrated by an SS officer, of extravagant and perverse sexual appetites, named Max Aue).

There was an interesting difference between the reception the novel received in the US and that which it got here in the UK. I reviewed it for the NS back in March. I argued that Littell's central provocation (which Franklin and Kakutani found unconscionable) -putting himself in Max's shoes- was his way of raising fundamental questions about the nature of evil and wickedness:

The novel opens, as it ends, with the narrator buttonholing the reader: "Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." With this malicious apostrophe, Max invites the reader to enter a pact - to accept that he is like us, not an inveterate sadist or psychopath, but an educated and cultured man who had the misfortune to be born in Germany in 1913, rather than the United States in 1967. Consequently, the central aesthetic problem of The Kindly Ones (how to get inside Max's head) is also a moral and philosophical one: is human evil always the work of moral monsters whose motives will always lie beyond our comprehension?

For some critics, it is unforgiveable even to ask that question. And for Littell to have ventured into the "forbidden places" where his narrator takes him is to have allowed himself to be corrupted. He makes evil something human rather than authentically demonic. But what if, in regarding wicked human beings as proxies for supernatural agents, we undermine the principle that we are responsible for our actions, and with it the ambition of the novel to tell the truth about our moral lives? Getting us to ask that question is Jonathan Littell's profound achievement.

And I wasn't alone among reviewers on this side of the Atlantic. Jason Burke, in the Observer, called the novel "remarkable"; according to James Lasdun, in the Guardian, The Kindly Ones "rises impressively, even magnificently, to its own occasions, building out of its fact-crammed but stately sentences (the impersonal prose resembles that of a mandarin memoir) vast and phosphorescent tableaux vivants seething with Dantesque detail." Which latter description does justice, it seems to me, to the novel's extraordinary linguistic textures.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Disney's failure to find an Arab Princess Jasmine for Aladdin shows the dire state of diversity in film

As a child in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. Yet no actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the cartoon.

Production on Disney’s new live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, was expected to begin this month, but the studio reportedly struggled to find actors for its lead roles. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” the Hollywood Reporter claimed. “Especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”

The author described efforts to scout actors in the UK, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi, which suggested a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white stars. However, many critics interpreted the rumoured casting difficulties as a sign that Ritchie might ultimately cast white actors in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. “It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role,” argued Rawan Eewshah in Allure, “or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?”

The hunt for Aladdin and Jasmine has become a global conversation on social media. In India, it has prompted collective eye-rolls considering the wealth of Bollywood actors trained in both acting and singing. Disney fans from across Europe, America, India and the Middle East have compiled long lists of suggestions drawn from Bollywood and Middle Eastern pop culture icons. Then there's the subset of criticism questioning the fact that Ritchie and the studio were casting Indian actors at all, given that the characters appear to be Arab.

In the event, most seemed happy with the announcement of Will Smith as the Genie, and the eventual decision to cast the Canadian-Egyptian Mena Massoud as Prince Ali. However, the decision to cast Naomi Scott, who is half Indian and half white, as Princess Jasmine, has caused further controversy, with many critics claiming that Disney should have cast an Arab actress.

This is not the first Aladdingate. Even in 1993, audiences were unhappy with the cartoon Aladdin’s portrayal of Arab culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted with frustration that most “of the Arab characters [had] exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

In response to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney Studios agreed to change the offensive lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” for the film’s 1993 home video release. The lyrics had referred to the story’s Middle Eastern setting as a “barbaric” land where “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Former Disney executive Dick Cook defended the song, claiming that: “The irony in all of this is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic, and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.”

As a kid in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. I spent much of my childhood dressing up as Princess Jasmine, convinced that my own Indian culture was reflected in the film’s imagery and cultural symbolism. It is only in more recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that the extent of the depiction of Indian “culture” in the film is Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah.

In actuality, the 1992 animated film is a white dream about the Middle East, lazily conflated with India (the Sultan’s palace is based on the Taj Mahal). It may have its origins in an ancient Syrian folk tale, but it is now painfully clear to me that the film is essentially an original work by a group of white men with a distorted and disturbingly orientalist view of the monolithic “East”. 

Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern region of Agrabah, and despite the film's (human) characters all having Arab names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is entirely white. No actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the making of the film.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is so dire that grown men and women across three continents are arguing about the ethnic integrity of the cast of Aladdin, a children’s cartoon that a group of white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist. Our one hotly contested property in Western pop culture is a children’s musical cartoon starring Robin Williams. Aladdin was, and still is, important to me and my Arab, South Asian and Muslim friends, however problematic the depiction. Jasmine was brown, just like we were (and are) – and sadly, that was enough.

No one* is daft enough to believe that Aladdin is any kind of credible mythology. But in terms of positive on-screen depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage and complexions, Aladdin is still as good as it gets. We are given so little time on-screen (and most of that time is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences.

Of course, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures and people are not interchangeable. No one should treat them as such, from Disney to those making casting suggestions. As for me, I don’t believe that accurately casting Arab actors in the leading roles of the live-action remake is enough to correct the original Aladdin’s racist presentation of the Arab world as a “barbaric” region where “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Still, it would have been a start.

*Except perhaps for the 41 per cent of Donald Trump supporters who said they were in favour of bombing Agrabah, the (fictional) homeland of Aladdin, in December 2015.