Holocaust novel creates a sensation in Europe

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The 900-page fictional memoirs of a Nazi, written in French by an American descendant of Polish Jews, solidified its place yesterday as the European literary sensation of the year, when it was awarded the Grand Prix du Roman from the Academie Francaise.

Les Bienveillantes, whose Canadian publishing rights were won late Wednesday by an "extremely strong" bid from McClelland & Stewart, has sold almost a quarter million copies since its French release in August, and already its author, Jonathan Littell, 39, is being spoken of in the same breath as Tolstoy and Flaubert.

Although there has been controversy over the subject matter -- Second World War French historian Peter Schoettler called it a "strange, monstrous book," and explicit to the point of "pornography" -- it has been roundly lauded as a deeply researched and humane treatment of a monstrous subject.

French newspaper Le Monde called it "a stunning saga in the tradition of the great Russians," and a British editor at this month's Frankfurt Book Fair described it as "a cross between The Oresteia [an ancient Greek trilogy of tragedies] and Forrest Gump."

From the very first line -- "Human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." -- Les Bienveillantes (literally "The Well-Meaning Ones) is presented as the memoirs of Dr. Maximilien Aue, an officer in the Waffen-SS.

"The basic thesis of the book, or rather its hypothesis, is that the barriers to mass killing are not individual but societal," Mr. Littell told Bloomberg News. "Once the state loosens the constraints against torture, there is never any shortage of torturers."

Mr. Littell, who grew up in France and lives in Barcelona, is a former aid worker who has worked in the Balkans, Chechnya and Afghanistan, mostly with the French NGO Action Contre la Faim. He was in a convoy that was attacked in January, 2001, during which a colleague was kidnapped but later released.

These experiences -- of seeing mass graves, dodging his own death and meeting war criminals -- led to his fascination with the "banality of evil."

Ellen Seligman, publisher (fiction) of McClelland & Stewart, said she first heard of Les Bienveillantes this month in Frankfurt, where it was the talk of the fair, and the subject of intense international bidding.

"I found out who the agent was, and I located him, and I sort of waited for him to finish his meeting, and attacked, asking if I could please see the book right away," she said.

Reading it over the course of a week, she said it elicits a feeling of "quiet horror" with prose that is "beautifully cadenced, luxurious and precise," but also "very dense."

"He writes about this without any sense of judgment or guilt... Because he is successful, what the reader inhabits is the consciousness of the character, not the consciousness of the author. So the author's presence is not felt in this book.... In a way, the character becomes a mirror-image of all of us," she said.

She said she does not think the fact of Mr. Littell's Jewishness gives him a special right to imagine the thoughts of a Nazi, although it might have been different if he were German.

"If this book were this book, but it was written by a German, I think it would be controversial in certain ways, but I think I would stand by it," she said.

Ms. Seligman said she is already pondering how to clear the "hurdles" of marketing a book on such a delicate subject to Canadians.

"We're not promoting the book as a potboiler 'memoirs of an SS,'" she said. "But there will be some readers who will close their mind because they don't want to read about bad things."

Books translated from English to French usually get 20% longer, so the reverse translation should reduce the hefty page count. It will also take time to get it right, Ms. Seligman said, so the joint Canadian-British-American release date is not expected until 2008.

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