‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (Review – IBP 2020, Number Two)

Having managed to escape from one perpetual war zone, it would have been nice to spend the next part of our International Booker Prize journey somewhere a little more relaxing; alas, that’s not the case.  In fact, we’ve landed somewhere even more dangerous, with half the armies of seventeenth-century Europe looking for trouble, and there’s no hiding behind a seven-foot-tall South African this time.  Still, we do have a new guide, and he, too, seems to be a bit of a survivor, even if his sense of humour can be a little caustic at times.  Let’s move on carefully through the chaos and meet him, but please, watch out for the wolves – and the latrines…

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
– Riverrun (Quercus), translated by Ross Benjamin
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
In a small village in the Germanic countryside, some time towards the start of the seventeenth century, Tyll Ulenspiegel, the local miller’s son, is growing up under the watchful eyes of his mother (and the jealous beatings of one of the mill workers).  The boy is a little different, enjoying games such as walking on a rope slung between two trees and juggling stones, and even if he’s destined to take over his father’s job one day, it seems unlikely that he’ll end his days grinding away in a cloud of white dust.

And so it proves.  When the miller comes to a sticky end because of his fascination for the mysteries of the universe, Tyll flees, along with his friend, Nele, joining a wandering entertainer on his travels as the three of them go from town to town in the hope of making a living.  However, these are dangerous times.  Not only are itinerant folk fair game for thieves and murderers, there’s also a storm gathering across the entire continent.  The thirty years’ war is about to begin, and Tyll will be there at many of its major turning points…

Till Eulenspiegel, as he’s usually called, is a Germanic folk hero dating back centuries, with a sixteenth-century book placing him in the fourteenth century.  He’s been used in many works since then and is usually portrayed as a practical joker (often with rather crude humour), and Kehlmann has adopted the figure and moved him to the period of the Thirty Years’ War, when most of Europe was fighting a conflict that was to devastate wide areas of the continent.  In a series of chapters set across Europe, we see him on the sidelines, never directly involved, but always ready with a trick and an uncomfortable truth for some of those who are.

In effect, the writer uses Tyll as a way into the major events of the war.  In addition to being a travelling entertainer, and later a circus leader, his reputation means dignitaries on both sides of the conflict are eager to make his acquaintance, and even install him as their court fool or jester.  Aside from the chapters describing his childhood, Tyll is rarely the focus of the stories, instead serving to link the pieces together, and as the novel progresses, we meet some real historical figures, some of whom won’t make it to the end of the war.

Kehlmann’s book is actually far more about the war than about Tyll, and the writer delights in dropping the reader, and his protagonist, into the middle of major events.  In several chapters, we travel through the countryside, witnessing first-hand the devastation wrought by decades of conflict:

The wind carried small, cold raindrops.  All around them were tree stumps, hundreds of them; a whole forest had been cut down here.  They passed through a village that had been burned down to its foundation walls, and there they saw a heap of corpses.  The fat count averted his eyes and then looked after all.  He saw blackened faces, a torso with only one arm, a hand clenched into a claw, two empty eye sockets over an open mouth, and something that looked like a sack but was the remains of a body.  An acrid smell hung in the air.
p.141 (Riverrun, 2020)

However, we also get to meet some of the major figures responsible for this carnage.  One of the core chapters is told by Friedrich (or Frederick), known as the Winter King, the man whose acceptance of the throne of Bohemia started the whole mess in the first place.  His wife (then widow…) Elizabeth Stuart, crops up again during negotiations for the Peace of Westphalia, while other parts of the novel introduce us to Anathasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath, or have us cowering in the face of cannons at the Battle of Zusmarshausen.  It’s all fascinating and makes for hours of ‘research’ on Wikipedia afterwards.

Quite apart from the war experiences, the era chosen by Kehlmann as his setting is intriguing in its own right.  The seventeenth century was a time of immense change, but superstition still held sway, and there was still a strong belief in witchcraft, cruel executions and very dubious science:

“The substitution has its limits.  The plague victim in the experiment died despite the decoction, which clearly proves that real dragon’s blood would have cured him.  Thus we need a dragon, and one of the last dragons of the north lives in Holstein.” (p.254)

Of course it does…  One of Tyll’s roles in the novel is to act as a conscience for the more prominent characters, his role as jester or fool giving him the right to tell it as it really is.  He flits from place to place, providing home truths and expertly skewering the consciences and vanities of those who employ him, with Friedrich and Kircher receiving particular attention.  It’s a slightly dangerous game, but the nerveless Tyll is expert at it – and superb at knowing when it’s time to move on.

While Tyll is a novel, it doesn’t always seem like it.  It comprises eight chapters of differing lengths that are jumbled up chronologically.  We begin with a performance introducing Tyll, and his ambiguous nature, before returning to his childhood to see the origins of the legend, and the reasons for his lifestyle choice.  As we move back and forth in time, characters appear, vanish and reappear, and while it’s all skilfully done, there are times when you wonder if it’s all a bit too clever.  My last longlist read, Red Dog, took a very different path with its exhausting, inexorable chronological progression, and I can’t help thinking that there must be a middle path between the two chosen approaches.

Nevertheless, Tyll is a fun book concerning a conflict I’d never learned much about (this was a war England kept well out of…), and our enigmatic friend is at the heart of it all:

Above us Tyll Ulenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly – not like someone in danger but like somone looking around with curiosity.  He stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips.  And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was.  We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people. (p.13)

Overall, it makes for a clever story using an intriguing figure to shine a light on a period where most were in the dark, and it’s certainly worth a read.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so.  It’s all very entertaining, and I enjoyed reading about an era in history I’d never previously heard much about, but it can seem a bit random, and the parts never really come together as a cohesive novel, not as much as Kehlman would like, anyway.  In hindsight, Anker’s approach to a chaotic period of conflict now seems much better – quite apart from the fact that when push comes to shove, I’d rather have Buys than Tyll on my side any day 😉

Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it.  I can see why the judges (or one of them, at least) might have taken a shine to this, but I suspect that there’s a certain other epic German-language work that is far more likely to meet their approval.

Once again, it’s time to make a quick exit before we stumble cross a marauding army, and thankfully we’re off to a warmer and more peaceful setting for our next stop.  We’ll be spending some time in Barcelona with a nice man who has just started to experiment with writing.  But is he writing a diary or something else?  We’ll find out next time…

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