Friday, 11 March 2016

Book Review: Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Seeing old recordings of the fiery speeches that Adolf Hitler stage-managed throughout his long political career, it’s hard to believe that people flocked to see him in person and were so impressed by his fascist rants that they followed him like dumb sheep into genocide and war. By today’s standards he behaved much like the laughingstock that Charlie Chaplin so brilliantly made of him (and others of his kind) in his legendary 1940 political comedy The Great Dictator, but people then were desperate and he offered, no promised a way out of misery and humiliation. And what if he (or someone like him) appeared in Germany these days? Could he rise to success and fame again? The satirical novel Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes pushes Adolf Hitler into the role of a star comedian on TV impersonating his own old self and making plans for his return into politics.

Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1967, to a German mother and a father who had fled from Communist Hungary in 1956. After his studies of History and Politics at the University of Erlangen he embarked on a career as journalist and worked for different German periodicals. Not before 2007 he turned his attention to writing fiction, but only as a ghost-writer at first. Several books have meanwhile appeared under the names of his clients. In 2012 Timur Vermes made his own literary debut with the satirical novel Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) that made it immediately on the bestselling lists and has been translated into dozens of languages since.

The story of Look Who’s Back is that of Adolf Hitler mysteriously transported into present-day Germany. It begins on the early afternoon of 30 August 2011 when he wakes up lying on the ground on a vacant plot in the heart of Berlin. He has no idea how he ended up there since his last memory is that of a cosy evening late in April sitting on the sofa with his wife Eva in his rooms in the Führerbunker. He has a bit of a headache and wears his usual uniform although it is dirty and smells of gasoline. Nobody from his entourage is there, just some boys playing soccer and to his bewilderment none of them recognises him. He realises that the war is over and already for a while because Berlin is no longer in ruins. Only the great number of Turkish shops startles him, but he explains it with Atatürk having entered an alliance with Germany after all. When he reads the date on a newspaper, the whole truth flashes upon him: over 66 years have passed! The owner of the kiosk sees him pale and offers assistance. The acquaintance is crucial because he takes him for a gifted comedian, who not only is the spitting image of Adolf Hitler but consequently lives his role too, and he knows people in the entertainment business to help the funny stranger without home or job back on his feet. Adolf Hitler gets a part in a popular TV show hosted by a German comedian of Turkish descent where he gladly seizes the opportunity to give a speech in his old style and to spread anew his hateful Nazi doctrine. The audience, above all the young, loves him and he quickly becomes a TV star – his chance to gain power and resume his role as “Heaven-sent”, though really self-proclaimed Saviour of the German people.

The idea behind the first-person satire titled Look Who’s Back probably is to reacquaint people with the history of the Third Reich in a humorous way and to show how certain aspects of contemporary society and politics resemble those of the past – not just in Germany. In fact, the novel contains lots of information on the life of Adolf Hitler, his actions and his thoughts pointing out parallels to today or much rather mirroring the rise of the Nazi regime in our modern entertainment society that plays so willingly into the hands of people propagating (often in a more subtle way) Nazi, racist or other extremist ideas. Thus the novel clearly satirises populist politics and the ignorance or naivety of the average citizen who falls for it. Unfortunately, I feel that some passages with Adolf Hitler’s reflections are so long and serious in tone that it’s difficult not to lose their satirical intention from sight. Moreover, I would have appreciated a strong character to counter-balance Nazi ideology, not necessarily in direct confrontation with Adolf Hitler. I really dislike that everybody succumbs either to the charms of Adolf Hitler (which he is reported to have had in fact!) or to his assumed “method-acting”. Reminiscences of his political combat and propaganda book Mein Kampf, which included an autobiography adapted to his needs, are surely intended. For the rest, it’s a well-researched and well-written satirical novel that entertains from beginning to end.

It may be considered poor taste that Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes makes the man who was responsible for the outrageous carnage in concentration camps and on the battlefields of World War II the protagonist of a satirical novel, but on the other hand, it’s a way to reach readers who would never touch a deep and dead serious historical novel, let alone a history book. Although I have some objections concerning the use of authentic Nazi ideology and diction in a way that doesn’t feel detached or refuted enough by irony, it’s a good book that should raise awareness for the fact that Adolf Hitler wasn’t a psychopathic lunatic, but an engaging man with a very distorted, prejudiced, often spiteful view of the world, a great hunger for power, and a gift for propaganda. It’s important to know this. Therefore I recommend the novel for reading.

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