Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes
|Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A well-crafted, and crafty, novel which disproves several stereotypes about the Germans – you can mention the War, and they do have a sense of humour.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: April 2014|
|Publisher: MacLehose Press|
Hitler Youth Ronaldo! Which way to the street? With these words a very misguided Nazi Fuhrer asks for his first directions in the Berlin of 2011. Mistakenly believing the lad to be a party junior member with his own name on his football shirt, he also thinks for a while it is still 1945. He's soon informed of the truth, but still makes some unfortunate conclusions – that the street kiosks selling Turkish language newspapers are a sign of a Soviet-beating alliance between the two countries, that people eat granola bars because the war still leads to a bread shortage, and that people making an ironic speech bubble with their fingers in the air is all that is left of the Hitler salute. But yes, after a long hiatus neither he nor our author is particularly concerned with explaining, that man is back – and if he has his way he's going to be just as popular this time round…
Make no bones about it, this book does not put its own air-brackets around the words that man. It's front and centre that this is the return of Hitler, with the brilliant stylised portrait on the front cover, and his own first person narrative. (He has written two books before now, of course, so knows how to get his words across.) We here in the English-speaking world can only try and fathom the response such a book was met with in Germany, especially as it tries – and succeeds – to create sympathy for Hitler as initially a fish out of water, tries – and succeeds – to be very funny in many regards, and tries – and succeeds – in being very probing and attacking about the present state of Germany and the world.
Only Hitler knows he is Hitler, and try as he might he cannot persuade anybody else. The newspaper seller he first meets is not alone in immediately thinking it is an act, a perfect combination of diligence and method acting from a parodist, and immediately tries to become more or less his agent and get him a media slot. This is duly achieved, but neither of them suspects how popular the 'act' will become.
To talk of the comedy, a lot of it is here, and it covers many more grounds than one may think. There is the snappy one-liner (Have you got a card? Any flyers? asks the newspaperman. Don't talk to me about the Luftwaffe….) There is comedy of manners, with Hitler failing to give relation tips to a Goth secretary he is given as assistant. There is a brilliant fish-out-of-water comedy of misunderstanding – Out of the corner of my eye I spied a madwoman on the edge of the park who was gathering up what her dog had just deposited. Had this creature been sterilized? I wondered, – and for a minute we actually think he means the dog. I don't know if any of these had to be reworked in translation (the flyer one, surely), but either way it works. The only duff moment is again in the paper kiosk when a pun about Der Spiegel falls flat, and with it being translated into The Mirror we Brits imagine a very different kind of publication.
But it is most certainly not just a comedy. There is a potted history, here and there, of the Germany that has grown and happened behind Hitler's back – probably some clueless dilettantes on the side of the victorious powers had produced an artificial currency called the Euro, and he hates the idea of Kohl having been the reunification chancellor yet not having gained any further Lebensraum – the man looked like Goering after a double dose of barbiturates.
The cutting social side of the book is prominent as well, with the cult of celebrity that soon surrounds Hitler, even to the extent that he can recycle his speeches of old (which we are told is happening once, although I suspect it's more often than that) and come away with admiration. Before then Hitler puts aside the idea of how he got to be in 2011, but sticks to his idea of why – while admitting his previous rise to power had been unlikely he says it was borne out of necessity, and therefore now he must be needed like never before, and must avenge the state of his Volk and his Land like some dormant King Arthur figure.
And even without being German and seeing this debut novelist put such things before us in what immediately has become a big-seller, one can still feel the impact. This is a well-crafted and crafty novel, looking back over the last eighty years of German history and using all that temporal momentum to build up to a galling yet very entertaining state of the nation address that will resonate, given the state of the world, for a good few years yet. Never a struggle, always a snappy, impactful, serious comedy, this book is equally valid on the international market as it was at home.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander is the book that has done a similar thing most recently. For a further, richer, though admittedly much less amusing, look at post-War German self-reflection, there is Guilt About the Past by Bernhard Schlink.
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