This has been quite a week. I’ve had a breakthrough in the planning of my new novel. I read Jenny Offill’s extraordinary Dept. Of Speculation in one sitting and felt compelled to add to the buzz. I attended the spectacular theatrical launch of Jason Hewitt’s debut The Dynamite Room – it’s one of my Hot Picks 2014 and the very next day it was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction. Then last night I got to meet Timur Vermes, author of the satirical German novel Look Who’s Back, at the UK launch hosted by Waterstones London Wall.
Look Who’s Back has a pretty astounding premise: Adolf Hitler wakes up in Berlin in 2011 to find the Fatherland unrecognisable and, despite many technological advances, decidedly inferior to the one he recalls. Unable to convince anyone that he is anything other than a flawlessly convincing impersonator, he becomes a YouTube sensation, ends up with his own TV chatshow – in fact everything’s changed but his political agenda.
This is one of the most original, outrageous and hysterically funny things I’ve ever read. There is more than a touch of genius about it. Same goes for the cover design – so simple but clever that it’s been used for all of the many translated editions except Dutch (where they inexplicably decided to mess with the hair.)
When I got to the end I still wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, so I was intrigued to hear what the author had to say. Last night Timur Vermes read an extract in which Hitler’s new PA, Frau Krömeier has to break it to him that ‘adolfhitler’ and its variants are not available as an e-mail address. Jamie Bulloch has not only done a fine job of translating this text into English, which must have been challenging, but he also put in an impressive performance as a young woman whose language and attitudes embody everything Hitler finds incomprehensible about modern Germany.
It was an inspired choice of extract, farcical in the way that so much of this book is. Vermes is a natural satirist who milks every situation and interaction – interwoven with Hitler’s frequent bouts of nostalgia and self-aggrandisement – for the last drop of absurdity. The Führer’s puzzled reaction to many aspects of contemporary life may raise a lot of laughs but there are interesting and serious questions here too: about history itself, the role of women, the media, issues of race and German identity. It is packed with cultural references and definitely has an extra dimension for anyone who knows Germany, though its international success shows that’s far from essential.
Timur Vermes took questions from the audience. I asked him if he had been apprehensive about how the book would be received and the answer was no, because when he was writing it he wasn’t sure it would get published at all (a familiar feeling to many of us). Asked about the inspiration behind it, he spoke of discovering a copy of Hitler’s little known second book (i.e. not Mein Kampf) in a used bookshop in Turkey. This gave him the idea of writing a third – and thus the two elements of this’ high-concept’ project, time-travelling and Hitler, came to him simultaneously.
I can’t not say this: parts of this book make for very uncomfortable reading and push at the boundaries of taste. Some people would find the very idea of making Hitler funny downright offensive. Vermes’ remarks on creating the persona of Hitler were fascinating. Without in any way exonerating him, he made the point that Hitler tends to be seen in purely black and white terms and that there is a knee-jerk ‘what Hitler thought was good must be bad and what Hitler thought was bad must be good’. At times in the novel Hitler displays vulnerable and almost endearing traits (such as loneliness and difficulty connecting with others, or just seeming disconcertingly normal.) I found that disturbing but I think that’s why this succeeds: we are accustomed to the unequivocal portrayal of Hitler as a monster and fictional characters need more than one dimension. The author said he felt free to imagine how Hitler felt and saw things because this is a work of fiction and for the same reason he didn’t feel enslaved to historical accuracy. Prejudice and delusions were a fundamental part of Hitler’s make-up – it would have been impossible to write a novel from his perspective without expressing them.
I’m not quoting from the text because it’s a ‘you had to be there’ situation. I’m not saying ‘you have to read this’ but I’m guessing by now you’ll already know whether you want to. Tempted or not?