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Charlotte Mandell

An essay on translating The Kindly Ones

An excerpt from the first chapter of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell


Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, youíll retort, and I donít want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long Ė a lot of things happened, after all Ė but perhaps youíre not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck youíll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: youíll see that this concerns you. Donít think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years Iíve made up my mind to write, itís to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae Ė what do we do with such an appalling realization? Suicide, of course, is always an option. But to tell the truth suicide doesnít tempt me much. Of course I have thought about it over the years; and if I were to resort to it, hereís how Iíd go about it: Iíd hold a grenade right up against my heart and go out in a bright burst of joy. A little round grenade whose pin Iíd delicately pluck out before I released the catch, smiling at the little metallic noise of the spring, the last sound Iíd hear, aside from the heartbeat in my ears. And then at last happiness, or in any case peace, as the shreds of my flesh slowly dripped off the walls. Let the cleaning women scrub them off, thatís what theyíre paid for, the poor girls. But as I said, suicide doesnít tempt me. I donít know why, either Ė an old philosophical streak perhaps, which keeps me thinking that after all weíre not here to have fun. To do what, then? I have no idea, to endure, probably, to kill time before it finally kills you. And in that case, writing is as good an occupation as anything else, when you have time to spare. Not that I have all that much spare time, I am a busy man; I have what is called a family, a job, hence responsibilities; all that takes time, and it doesnít leave much to recount oneís memories. Particularly since memories are what I have quite a lot of. I am a veritable memory factory. I will have spent my whole life manufacturing memories, even though these days Iím being paid to manufacture lace. In fact, I could just as easily not write. Itís not as if itís an obligation. After the war I remained a discreet man; thank God I have never been driven, unlike some of my former colleagues, to write my Memoirs for the purpose of self-justification, since I have nothing to justify, or to earn a living, since I have a decent enough income as it is. Once, I found myself in Germany on a business trip, I was meeting the head of a big lingerie company, to sell him some lace. Some old friends had recommended me to him; so, without having to ask any questions, we both knew where we stood with each other. After our discussion, which went quite well, he got up, took a book down from his shelf and handed it to me. It was the posthumous memoirs of Hans Frank, the Generalgouverneur of Poland; it was called Facing the Gallows. ďI got a letter from Frankís widow,Ē he said. ďShe had the manuscript, which he wrote after his trial, published at her own expense; now sheís selling the book to provide for her children. Can you imagine that? The widow of the Generalgouverneur! Ė I ordered twenty copies from her, to use as gifts. And I advised all my department chiefs to buy one. She wrote me a moving letter of thanks. Did you know him?Ē I assured him I hadnít, but that I would read the book with interest. Actually I had run into Hans Frank once, briefly, maybe Iíll tell you about it later on, if I have the courage or the patience. But just then it would have made no sense talking about it. The book in any case was awful Ė confused, whining, steeped in a curious kind of religious hypocrisy. These notes of mine might be confused and awful too, but Iíll do my best to be clear; I can assure you that they will at least be free of any form of contrition. I do not regret anything: I did my work, thatís all; as for my family problems, which I might also talk about, they concern no one but me; and as for the rest, I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself, I was off-balance, and anyhow the whole world was toppling around me, I wasnít the only one who lost his head, admit it. Also, Iím not writing to feed my widow and children, Iím quite capable of providing for them. No, if I have finally decided to write, it really is probably just to pass the time, and also, possibly, to clear up one or two obscure points, for you perhaps and for myself. Whatís more I think it will do me good. Itís true that I have been in a rather glum mood of late. The constipation, probably. A distressing and painful problem, and a somewhat new one for me; it used to be just the opposite. For a long time I had to go to the toilet three or four times a day; now, once a week would be a blessing. Iíve been reduced to taking enemas, a repulsive procedure, albeit effective. Forgive me for wearying you with such sordid details: but I do have a right to complain a little. And if you canít bear this youíd better stop right here. Iím no Hans Frank, and I canít stand mincing words. I want to be precise, as far as I am able. In spite of my shortcomings, and they have been many, I have remained someone who believes that the only things indispensable to human life are air, food, drink, and excretion, and the search for truth. The rest is optional.†

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