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?
I’m so glad you posted this review; I was looking at this book on Netgalley two minutes ago, after a friend told me about it last night. It sounds like a really curious premise, but I can imagine it has the potential to offend. Will definitely see if I can get hold of a copy!
What a coincidence! With this book at least it’s very clear what the subject is and in what way it is controversial, so anyone who reads it comes to it with their eyes open.
Not surprising there is a lot of buzz about this book – I guess if the idea appeals and/or only intrigues you’re going to want to read it. Already read a review on this on A Life in Books – a little less positive than yours but has still sold the book to me. I wonder how you felt it compared with Hope by Shalom Auslander – if I remember rightly we had a short tweet about it after I’d flagged it on my blog. Seems similar (though I wouldn’t at all suggest overlapping) in braving such controversial topics.
Your memory is better than mine! I found it much funnier than Hope where the novelty wore off sooner. Hitler is obviously a repellent protagonist but I didn’t find him irritating (which is not to say this one doesn’t grate sometimes).
This has intrigued me, and I agree the cover is brilliant. Another one on my list.
I think the intrigue factor of this one is huge, and probably accounts for it being so widely published all over. Do tell me what you make of it!
I heard the author interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 and was intrigued by its premise so was fascinated to read this blog post. It sounds like it was a really thought-provoking launch. I would have loved to have heard him speak in person — on the radio his excellent but peculiarly Germanic English reminded me of many of the colleagues I worked with (I spent just under 10 years travelling to Germany more or less every other week to work at the HQ of one of their biggest companies).
On the radio Timur Vermes talked about how Germans traditionally add an automatic adjective (which I can’t find online) when discussing Hitler that expresses collective disgust and he said that his novel was unusual and arguably a step forward in that it satirised the Third Reich without automatically advertising moral disapproval.
I was wondering if the book would live up to its premise — which comes very close to the knuckle in satirising mass media culture as the Nazis were some of the first to harness imagery, spectacle and iconography on a huge scale. It’s a very thought-provoking point what Hilter would have done with the likes of Twitter or the information gathering potential of the web in general.
I also was a bit wary of the notorious oxymoron of German humour — but you’ve convinced me, as something of a Germanophile, to give it a read.
Interesting points – the various ironies surrounding hype, image etc were very well handled. I read this months ago well before the book’s own hype began here and I think it does merit the attention. You would find it fascinating as a Germanophile even if you hated it. I got the ‘extras’ as I speak the language and have lived there (though I’m more of a Francophile and Amerophile).
I find it really interesting what Timur Vermes had to say about creating the character; that he went about creating a man, rather than the ‘monster’ Hitler’s become and is widely portrayed and seen as. I think it’s important to remember that he was just a man, as were the others he surrounded himself with. I think I’ll probably also find it interesting to see how Hitler views today’s (social) media and and its opportunities, given how well the Third Reich used what was available to them at the time to spread their propaganda and ‘branding’, for want of a better word.
I would have liked to have had the chance to hear the author talk about the book, so thanks so much for reporting on the event in such detail.
I definitely want to read this but I’d prefer to read it in the German first, before I read it in translation. Did you read both, Isabel?
Hi Kath, thanks for your comment. It’s a shame you weren’t able to hear TV live but I’m glad you enjoyed my write-up. You’re guaranteed to find this interesting at the very least. Do let me know. I only read it in English which is a bit silly as I’m sure Jamie would have let me see the original had I asked!
I’ve been wanting to read this one since I heard about the German original, so it’s great to hear it’s out now in translation and to read your intriguing review. I’ll be waiting for the paperback but will definitely read this one.