A vast fictional exploration of banal, everyday evil, as related by a Nazi officer.
Littell’s novel, originally published in France in 2006, won two of that country’s literary prizes, the Goncourt and the Prix de Littérature. At the center of the narrative is Dr. Maximilian Aue. Aue is a faithful Nazi servant, but he’s also self-aware enough to know that the Nazi war machine is doomed. But then, he reflects, not much ends up well in life: “For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then that time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae—what do we do with such an appalling realization?” Aue will return to that rousing preamble at many points in this long meditation on how larvae behave toward one another. He himself wishes to ascend on butterfly wings. He is cultured, even elegant, full of splendid aperçus on food and given to reading all the right books, but in Littell’s novel, the reader will find little reason to like him. The confusion seems to be deliberately induced, for Littell reportedly has ventured that Aue represents what he, and by extension any intellectual or artist, might well have become if born Aryan in the Third Reich. Aue does not do vast amounts of killing, but he signs off on death-commando actions and witnesses endless massacres (at one, tired of monotonous mass murder, he simply announces, “I’m going to go wait in the car”). Aue becomes a touch remorseful with the passing years and pages (he feels bad for all the murdered Jews at least in part because so thorough were the Nazis, “they hadn’t left anyone to mourn them”). Littell’s apocalyptic ending is like nothing else in the literature, though it has modest echoes of both Günter Grass’s Tin Drum and Traudl Junge’s memoir of Hitler’s last days, To the Final Hour.
The closing is a tour de force. But so is the entire book—very long, but with not a wasted word.