I read with interest yesterday Michuko Kakutani's review of Yann Martel's new novel (which I haven't read yet) which she says "has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke 'the extermination of animal life' and the suffering of “doomed creatures” who 'could not speak for themselves.' The reader is encouraged to see the stuffed animals Beatrice and Virgil — who have endured torture, starvation and humiliation — as stand-ins for the Jews, and to equate the terrible things they’ve witnessed — referred to as “the Horrors” — to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Last year I reviewed for "The Forward" Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones," a book about the Holocaust told from the perspective of an SS officer, which depicted the horrors and atrocities of the Shoah with documentary detail. It sounds as if "The Kindly Ones" is the polar opposite of Martel's new novel which sounds like it has the treacly sickingly sweet tone of the fable-like The Boy in Striped Pajamas or "The Book Thief", also novels with the Holocaust as their theme.
And yet Kakutani wrote in her February 24, 2009 review of "The Kindly Ones":
"Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, 'The Kindly Ones' — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies."
Kakutani seemed disgusted with the "endless succession" of depictions of horrors done to the Jews, but Littell was trying to portray in fiction the endless horrors committed by ordinary men to their fellow men, and did so by writing with realistic detail, and juxtaposing those documentary-style passages with the SS-officer's (Maximillian Aue's) descent into fantasy and madness.
Kakutani wrote in her revew, "When Aue isn’t talking dispassionately about the mechanics of rounding up Jews (spreading rumors that they were going to Palestine so they would not panic) or the difficulty of disposing of bodies ('it wasn’t so much the gassing that posed a problem, but the ovens were overloaded'), he’s describing grotesque scenes of degradation and slaughter: Jews being lashed with a horsewhip; a baby being cut out of its dying mother by Caesarean section, then smashed to death against the corner of a stove; hanged men with 'their tongues sticking out,' streams of saliva running 'from their mouths to the sidewalk'; emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, forced to defecate 'as they walked, like horses.'"
It sounded as if Kakutani attributes this grotesqueness to Littell's writing, when actually, what's grotesque and horrifying is the acts committed in the Holocaust against Jews, which Littell writes about from the perspective of Aue. All these things did happen--the smashing of babies against the wall, the emaciated prisoners covered in excrement, etc. I suppose Kakutani never had to watch "The Holocaust" mini-series on video in Hebrew School as I did, or sit through Claude Lanzmann's Shoah documentary with her parents (again, as I did).
One wonders what kind of novel about the Holocaust Kakutani would find to her liking. Indeed, Kakutani is aware of the oft-quoted problem as originally posed by Adorno. As she ends her 2009 review of Littell's book, she writes, "Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust ('through aesthetic principles or stylization,' he contended, 'the unimaginable ordeal' is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims'), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that 'in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,; we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as 'a staggering triumph.'”
(When one understands how the French have dismissed their role in the Holocaust, one can see that the Le Monde's calling a novel like "The Kindly Ones" a "triumph," is a triumph in its own right.)
Littell was trying to capture the horror of the Holocaust within the pages of the novel. Thanks to Kakutani's review, and others like it, few American readers will actually read Littell's book. The librarian at my temple chose not to purchase it for the temple collection based upon its largely bad reviews in the States. Martel's novel is surely more palatable to readers. Perhaps Kakutani regrets her panning of Littell's book after reading Martel's new novel, which sounds as if it is disturbing in an altogether different way, disturbing in the way it trivializes the horrors committed against Jews in the Holocaust.