The representation of violence

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Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones depicts many scenes of graphic violence

Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones depicts many scenes of graphic violence.

‘A man turned the body over in the mud: it was a young peasant woman, with a coloured scarf on her head, pregnant. “She just panicked,” said one of the men. “You didn’t have to shoot her like that.” – “She isn’t dead yet,” said the man who was examining her. The orderly came over: “Take her into the house.” Several men picked her up; her head fell back, her muddy dress stuck to her enormous belly, the rain pummelled her body. They carried her into the house and put her on a table. An old woman sat sobbing in a corner, otherwise the isba was empty. The girl was groaning. The orderly ripped open her dress and examine her. “She’s finished. But she’s at full term, we can still save the baby, with a little luck.” He began to vie directions to the two soldiers standing there. “Heat some water.” I went out into the rain to find Ott, who had gone back to the vehicles. “what’s happening, then?” – “The girl is going to die. Your orderly is trying to perform a caesarean section.” – “A caesarean?! Christ, he’s gone nuts!” The orderly was holding a little bloody bundle, swaddled in a sheet, and had just finished tying off the umbilical cord. The girl, dead, lay on the table with her eyes wide open, naked, covered in blood, sliced open from the navel to the sex. “It worked, Untersturmführer,” Greve said. “He should live. But they’ll have to find a wet nurse.” – “Give me that!” Ott shouted. “Give me that!” – “Why?” – “Give me that!” Ott was pale and trembling. He tore the newborn from Greve’s hands and, holding it by its feet, smashed its skull against the corner of the stove. Then he threw it on the ground.’

  1. Does this depiction of violence enhance our understanding of the violence perpetrated against civilians by the National Socialists?
  2. The story is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer and member of Einsatzgruppe B. Is it problematic to have the violence narrated from the perspective of the perpetrators rather than the victims?
  3. The author J. M. Coetzee is concerned about the ethics of representing the ‘torture chamber’ of state violence. He asks: “If the novelist finds in squalor the occasion for his most soaring poetic eloquence, might he not be guilty of seeking out his squalid subject matter for perversely literary reasons?” Does Coetzee make a valid point?

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 133.