Having left Fukuoka early (time off for good behaviour…), the next destination on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize tour is Berlin. It’s 2011, and the city is once again the capital of a united Germany, a thriving metropolis gradually leaving the scars left by war and division behind. But what if a familiar face returned to remind everyone of the city’s uneasy past? Guess who’s back…
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes – MacLehose Press (translated by Jamie Bulloch, review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
A man wakes up on his back on a sunny afternoon in a small grassed area, the shouts of some boys playing football nearby the only sound to be heard. Having sat up, he assesses the situation – apart from a sore head, he appears to be in good shape. An office worker waking up after a midday snooze? A hardened drinker getting up to another day in the park? Not quite. You see, this is no ordinary man. This is Adolf Hitler, and – somehow – he’s back, and ready to take control of his city.
Of course, it’s not quite as easy as all that. Over sixty years have passed since the end of the war, and Berlin has changed a lot:
“The last time I had seen it I remembered the city being terribly dusty and a kind of field-grey, with heaps of rubble and widespread damage. What lay before me now was quite different. The rubble had vanished, or at least had been removed, the streets cleared. Instead there were numerous, nay innumerable brightly coloured vehicles on either side of the street. They may well have been automobiles, but were smaller, and yet they looked so technically advanced as to make one suspect that the Messerschmitt plant must have had a leading hand in their design.”
p.9 (MacLehose Press, 2014)
In this new environment, the returning leader realises that it’s not going to be easy to regain his former power and make the Volk realise that the threat from the east is still present and dangerous. However, a short time analysing this new world he’s been thrust into helps Hitler to see that there’s one area where he might be able to make an impression. This is the age of the television – and, let’s face it, he’s always been a good speaker…
Look Who’s Back, which, in my head at least, always evokes shades of Eminem (Guess Who’s Back / Back again / Hitler’s back / Tell a Friend…) was a huge hit – and a massive controversy – when it came out in Germany. While the war is a fairly common topic for discussion in the UK, the US and Australia, the result of having been on the ‘right’ side of affairs, Germans have to watch their step a little more, with any kind of sympathy for the
Devil Nazi regime seen as an offence (Holocaust denial, for example, is a crime in Germany). While it may just seem opportunistic, then, Vermes’ book is actually quite a brave move, a novel guaranteed to stir up a rather uncomfortable past.
If the characters thought that this was the real Hitler, then the whole thing would fall flat on its face. However, sixty-five years after the end of the conflict, the former Führer is regarded as a comedian, an impersonator who takes his role so seriously that he never leaves character:
“You really don’t want to look like other people, do you?” the newspaper vendor said.
“Where do you think it would have got me if I had always done everything like so-called ‘other people’?” I retorted. “And where would Germany be?
“Hmm,” he said, silenced by my comment. He lit another cigarette and said, “You could see it that way, I suppose.” (p.43)
This single-minded focus soon leads to a break. From humble beginnings as a guest on a small comedy show, he rockets to stardom, a man mocking German society in a way most would never dare.
The most succesful aspect of the novel is the way in which contemporary society is lampooned in its confrontation with Hitler. The television network falls over itself to promote their new star, though Hitler himself deplores the rubbish filling the airwaves (there’s an amusing passage in which we get his views on daytime TV…). Once he becomes more famous, he is even able to attract politicians onto his show, proving his point about weak career politicians and their desperation to catch hold of the Zeitgeist.
It’s not just the television networks that are obsessed with the ‘comedian’. The printed press is just as starstruck, with (initially) the exception of the powerful tabloid, Die Bild-Zeitung. One of the most fascinating parts of the book for me was the section in which Hitler wages a campaign against the newspaper – anyone who has ever ‘read’ this particular publication will understand that it was a conflict where the reader’s loyalties are squarely behind the Führer…
Vermes never quite lets us forget, however, who we’re dealing with. This is Hitler, and his views remain the same. When the topic of Jews comes up, and all agree that this is no laughing matter, the two sides load the words with very different meanings. Often, the writer’s way of bringing the reader back down to Earth is less than subtle, clumsy even. However, on occasion, he can get it chillingly right, such as when at the height of his success, he is feted at the television network:
And, just as in the Reichstag of old, the salute came resounding back: “Heil!”
Look Who’s Back can be a little light at times, but this is a moment where the full enormity of the situation is there for the reader to see. This man is not an amusing satirist, he’s a megalomaniac who plotted and ordered the murder of millions of people – and he’s on his way to a triumphant comeback.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so. I enjoyed the book for the most part, and there’s a lot to like in certain areas, but this isn’t a book that lingers in the memory. It reminded me a little of The Rosie Project (a book I’ve skimmed but not read in full), a bad-taste joke stretched out for hundreds of pages. People will enjoy this because of the familiarity of the subject, and it’s certainly an enjoyable book (with an excellent translation by Jamie Bulloch), laugh-out-loud funny at times. However, if I’d left this review much longer to write, I doubt I would have remembered much about it.
It’s not bad, it’s just not a prize winner ;)
Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it. There are five German books on the longlist this year, and with Erpenbeck having sewn up one of the six shortlist spots (famous last words…), I can’t see Look Who’s Back joining it (while I hadn’t read them at time of posting, the Kehlmann and the Schalansky are much more likely to progress). This is another of the lighter books on the longlist, one of those the judges suspect will appeal to the average reader. They’re probably right – and that’s as far as it goes :)
Let’s leave Adolf to his new career and head northwards, where a much more literary, and melancholy, story awaits us. We’re off to Sweden to spend some time on a farm, helping out in the fields and taking time out to observe the native birds. A word of warning – watch out for the big black ones…