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Back to Nazi history

Les Bienveillantes has inspired a spate of books that seek to re-examine on Nazism.

india Updated: Dec 01, 2006 17:11 IST

A French-language blockbuster novel about the Holocaust by a first-time American author that has become France's 2006 bestseller has revived public curiosity in the history of Nazism.

Having already hooked two top French literary awards, the 900-page runaway success by Jonathan Littell, which was only published at the end of August, has also stoked discussion about the boundary between fact and fiction.

Indeed, rarely has a Goncourt winner -- the most prestigious of France's myriad literary awards -- provoked such impassioned debate in public as Les Bienveillantes.

The book, whose title roughly translates as The Kindly Ones or The Well-Meaning Ones, is a fictional first-person account by a former German SS officer of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Slammed as a "gigantic hoax" by French historian Edouard Husson in the columns of the newspaper Le Figaro a day after scooping the coveted prize, the novel has, nonetheless, been flying off store shelves.

Some 350,000 copies of the book whose pictureless, pale beige cover make it look more like an academic reference work than the country's must-read novel of the year, have already been sold.

Shortly after its release the book's publishing company, Gallimard, decided to republish in September The Destruction of the European Jews by American historian Raul Hilberg, a reference in the study of the Holocaust.

And two French weekly magazines, Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Point, have devoted editions to the history of Nazism, while other publications have followed. Denoel publishing house plans is re-releasing Kaputt by Italy's Curzio Malaparte.

That work sought "to make a radioscopy of Nazi monstrosity," the Italian writer has said, as 39-year-old Littel, who was born in New York but grew up in France, also sought to do after him -- to mixed reviews.

While some critics have denounced the US writer's novel for interpretation errors and historical inaccuracy, supporters have argued for the legitimacy of basing a fictional work on history.

"The idea that any man can become a torturer serves, in fact, through the pen of Jonathan Littell, to relativise the crimes of Nazism," historian Husson wrote in Le Figaro.

But the monthly literary and cultural affairs magazine La Revue des Deux Mondes tried to respond to criticism that Littell's novel created confusion between literature and historical fact.

It raised the question in its December "Post Littell" edition of whether the novel was a literary landmark "in a country like France where history has always been told through literature".

"No, in the sense of a victory of the novel over history, but to the contrary, in the sense of an aesthetic process of harmonising the two," wrote its chief editor Michel Crepu.

Littell, who has seldom waded into the discussion, has said flatly that: "It is a novel." The opening line of the novel "Freres humains..." (Fellow humans) has echoes of a 15th-century poem by François Villon.

And the novel's opening sentence continues: "Let me tell you how it happened," a phrase that appeared on bright red slips wrapped around the book's front cover on early editions.

Littell, who is bilingual but will not translate the work himself, though he has said he will closely oversee the translation, has also responded to filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's concern that people will only learn about the Holocaust through the book.

"The opposite is clear. Sales of works by Raul Hilberg and Claude Lanzmann have increased since the release of my book," Littel said, in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde.

For its part, a leading journal on history, L'Histoire, concluded that Les Bienveillantes was simultaneously both untenable and a gripping read, adding: "Everyone should read it."

First Published: Nov 30, 2006 19:04 IST