If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll

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If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Based on the unbelievable claims of a real-life German Acrobat who claimed to have once been King of Albania, Nicoll imagines how this could have happened in a joyously farcical romp of a story, charmingly narrated.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9780857384935

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The story at the heart of Andrew Nicoll's If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead is bizarre but not entirely of Nicoll's own creation. It is narrated by German-born Otto Witte, who is rapidly recording a strange time in his life while Allied bombs are falling in World War Two Germany, although the events that he relates go back to 1913 when Otto was an acrobat working in a travelling circus currently in Buda, or perhaps Pest - he's not quite sure. In addition to his acrobatic skills, he is also blessed with an impressive set of whiskers which make him the dead ringer for the newly appointed Turkish King of Albania. If only he can get there before the claimant to the crown, perhaps he can steal the country and complete an unlikely rise in status. In the company of his pal, Max, a strongman, a blind mind-reader and his beautiful daughter, an exotic dancer and a purloined camel, what could possibly go wrong?

What's even more bizarre than the story is that Otto Witte was a real person who was an acrobat and who claimed to have once been King of Albania, although there is scant evidence to support this claim of course and the Turkish Halim Eddine who he was supposed to resemble never existed. He was a fantasist who claimed a range of other tall tales about his life. In fact, Nicoll isn't the first to fictionalise this story, which forms the basis for a fantasy novel by the prolific Harry Turtledove and Otto himself may have got some parts of his story from the The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. What Nicoll does though is to imagine the events into a highly amusing and farcical narrative as Otto might have told it, assuming that Herr Witte had the wit of Nicoll. While Max featured in Otto's own narration of events, the other circus characters are, I believe, very much Nicoll's own invention as is the detail of the unfolding of events.

If you can imagine a Carry On movie without the double entendres then you have a pretty good idea of the style of this novel - in fact Carry On Up the Albanoks, which is what Otto refers to the Albanians as, it a pretty good title. Otto spends a fair amount of time musing on the voluptuousness of the exotic dancer, Tifty, while falling in love with the mind-reader's daughter, Sarah. Meanwhile Max develops a somewhat unhealthy affection for the camel while enjoying Tifty's doubtless charms.

Despite the ludicrous premise of the story, it is highly entertaining. The only cloud on the horizon, or perhaps more accurately the only MacLeod on the horizon, is the introduction of Mrs MacLeod (an early phase of Mata Hari's life) and her pal Captain Arbuthnot who join forces with the circus troupe in a way that isn't entirely convincing. Although given the nature of the story it seems almost ludicrous to criticise any of this as being unrealistic. It introduces a slightly uncomfortable element of magical realism at one point to a story that is otherwise unbelievably believable. Well, sort of ...

Otto's voice is undeniably charming and funny and you will quickly be rooting for him to succeed. In fact all the circus gang are loveable in their own way. Rarely does a page pass when the reader isn't drawn to smile at events and dialogue.

Nicoll provides a brief synopsis of some of the real characters in the story: Albanian Prime Minister Ismail Kemali, his sidekick Zogolli who would go on to declare himself King Zog, MacLeod, Arbuthnot and of course Otto. However, he doesn't go on to look at the history of the story per se which is almost as remarkable as the events told. While Nicoll's story stands well enough on it's own, when put into context I found myself loving Otto even more. As late as 1958 for example, American Time magazine was still amazingly apparently reporting Otto's claims as fact! Nicoll tells us that both Kemali and Zogolli were asked if they had heard of Otto Witte. I'd love to have seen their faces at that point. Although to be fair, the version they would have been told was not as sensational as Nicoll's version.

Sadly though events do irrefutably seem to have been the result of Otto's own imagination and John Major remains the only person to run away from the circus and end up running a country. It's less clear to what extent Otto believed his own story. He managed to get the fact that he was once King of Albania onto his headstone though, and you have to admire that.

Our thanks go to the good people at Quercus for sharing this bizarre story with us.

If only Otto had read Western Balkans (Lonely Planet Multi Country Guide) by Marika McAdam first. The book reminded me somewhat of Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch in style, while for more circus-related fun The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is highly recommended. For more by this author of course The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicoll is also an excellent read.

It's also worth checking out The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Stephanie Pain where she revealed to us that Otto was not the only one with his sites on Albania's top job.

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Buy If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If You're Reading This, I'm Already Dead by Andrew Nicoll at Amazon.com.

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