Friday, November 17, 2006

The Kommandant -- A Trilingual Reading of Les Bienveillantes

Right after the ALTA conference, two things happened. A big thick plop on my front porch from Amazon France containing Les Bienveillantes by Jonathan Littel, which has been the most discussed book of the summer in Western Europe it appears, and I, now the former host committee chair, got sick. The fact that I had to spend two weeks more or less resting up made opening Les Bienviellantes possible (894 pages is intimidating in any language), and once I started, I was hooked. The novel is unsettling, and extremely disturbing, but I was also disturbed in a linguistic way.
Now the Trilingual Reading languages: First, Jonathan Littel is an American writing in French. Not only does he write in French, he does it very well, and has won the 2006 Prix Goncourt (the French Pulitzer, so to speak). Second, the book is about a German, albeit with a French mother, which means that the world of the main character is already a "translation" from the German language and thought world into the French. And third, of course, is that the author and I share the same mother tongue, American English. There is a kind of perverse pride that one of "those Americans" has the ability to write a novel that can stand next to Victor Hugo without shame.
Now the story is jarring enough, even if one has read a great deal of Holocaust literature. Most of my reading in the field has been in German, and seeing events through the medium of the French language made the telling almost a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, distancing me as the reader from the experiences in which I already have extensive German vocabulary and knowledge. But this Verfremdungseffekt made the story even more ghastly, except for one little, little problem (no pun intended, actually. No really!).
German is a language of case, and English and French, with some exceptions in the pronoun arena, are not. Littel has chosen to use many German words and expressions in this work, der Kommandant being one of many, and I almost would have preferred to have the French. Why? Each time a German word was used with its nominative "the", in a place where the sentence has the word in what would be a direct or an indirect object, I was jerked right out of the story and into German 101 teaching assistent mode. Quite frankly, this is not my favorite persona. Nothing is misspelled nor are the words in the wrong context -- the use of the German vocabulary is flawless in all ways except for the case system problem. If I did not know German, I am sure that I would be captured by Littel's use of German for good effect, but the effect is lost when the case is wrong and the reader knows it. This could have been avoided entirely by using "le Kommandant" for example, which would make the case system discussion irrelevant. But "der" where "den" or "dem" should be used? If I were a cat, my fur is being rubbed the wrong way each and every time it happens. I wonder if this is my emotional way of distancing myself from the Arendtian "banality of evil" in the text itself, by letting myself be distracted by improper use of case. But I am distracted, in a red-pennish sort of way, and that makes me irritated, and then I wonder what the editor knew of German, or if Littel was aware of the case system but decided to ignore it, and then I am off into the kinds of tangents that sociolinguists tend to wander. What does the use of German mean? Why is Littel using this German expression here, but a French translation here? How many doctoral dissertations are going to be written on this?
Well, I did get better, and I am nearing the end of "Les Bienviellantes" (the title proposal for English is "The Kindly Ones" though I think that "Men of Good Will" would make a beautifully ironic title, though the title refers to the Furies in French.) If you know French, do try and read it, but I would put a disclaimer here as well, because at times you will find yourself in a position of voyeur to sadism and murder, and this reader often felt like a minor character found in the first hundred pages, who, when faced with the initial cruelty of the German invasion of the Ukraine, went completely insane. Under the circumstances, of course, perhaps he was the sanest of them all. As the protagonist keeps going through this "docu-roman", the horrors (and perversions) become a bit much, and this reader was glad to have been born far far away from the countries of my maternal ancestors.

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