SS men shoot Jews at Babi Yar, Ukraine in 1941 Photograph: Getty Images
Laurent Binet seems to see his recently-published novel HHhH as an implicit critique, in the form of a novel, of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. In an interview with Jonathan Derbyshire for the New Statesman, Binet said he was “disturbed” by The Kindly Ones, which was published in France in 2006, and in particular criticised Littell’s apparent aspiration to take us inside the minds of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. “When I read Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones I don’t get any access to the consciousness of a Nazi,” he said. “I just have access to the mind of Jonathan Littell.” Binet says he was consciously taking a different approach to fictionalising the Nazi past. “I felt Littell was doing something I didn’t want to do”, he said. “His method was not mine.”
Binet’s novel is all about the difficulty of telling the story of the assassination by the Czech resistance of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. Whereas Littell’s story is told from the perspective of an SS officer who remembers in perfect detail his exploits on the eastern front, Binet writes from his own perspective – in other words, that of a young French writer struggling at the beginning of the 21st century to understand the Nazi past. Binet’s narrator agonises over how to tell the story. But although he frets about speculating beyond what he knows to be true, he speculates anyway; although he promises the reader he will avoid imagining dialogue he cannot know to be accurate, he goes ahead and imagines. He finds himself “banging my head against the wall of history” and “fighting a losing battle”.
Perhaps, however, Binet has misunderstood Littell’s novel. He – and a lot of critics – seem to take at face value the narrator Maximilian Aue’s promise at the beginning of the novel to tell the reader “how it happened”. They therefore see The Kindly Ones as a more or less successful realistic novel (Binet compares it to War and Peace). But is this not to make the old mistake of confusing the author and the narrator? As an SS Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a major) involved in the Final Solution, Aue surely has every reason to lie, evade and obfuscate. So, even though he was there, why should we assume Littell would want us to see him as a reliable source on the Holocaust?
In fact, as I described in another blog post, Aue’s account is both anachronistic and full of gaps – for example about the murder of his mother. As the 900-page novel progresses, it becomes harder for the reader to believe anything he says. It seems to me therefore that Aue should actually be seen as an unreliable narrator. Aue’s postmodern tone, which Binet correctly identifies (his narrator describes The Kindly Ones as “Houellebecq does Nazism”), is surely a clue to the reader. By the end of the novel, when Aue bites Hitler’s nose in the Führerbunker, I even wondered whether perhaps he is a fantasist like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Perhaps The Kindly Ones and HHhH are therefore not so different after all. James Lasdun contrasts Binet’s novel with Littell’s, which he says attempts to “feel its way into the inner psychological textures of Nazism”. But maybe, like HHhH, it actually illustrates how hard it is for us to do exactly this. The more we know about the Nazi past, the less we feel we understand it. In other words, although written from different perspectives, both The Kindly Ones and HHhH do the same thing: explore the impossibility, as the Nazi past recedes, of fictionalising and understanding “how it happened”.