Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
This might seem a slightly odd book with which to start off German Literature Month; however, it’s German, it’s literature and it tackles the state of modern Germany in a particularly distinctive way…
The story begins with the narrator waking up on a piece of waste ground in Berlin in 2011. He is unsure how he got there, as the last thing he can remember is being in his bunker with Eva in 1945. This is, of course, Adolf Hitler and so this is a tale where you’re going to have to suspend disbelief from the word go. Mind you, the cover of the book does remind you that it’s a “Merciless Satire” – and that’s certainly the case.
Hitler manages to come to terms with modern life surprisingly quickly. The lads playing football on the waste ground obviously recognise him (let’s face it, Hitler is possibly the most recognisable person in history!) but take for a very impressive impersonator – as does everyone he comes across. He finds unlikely rescue from a news kiosk owner, who’s never named, but who has contacts in the media and brings Adolf into contact with a company who think he’s a comedy act. As Hitler continues to play it straight (i.e. be exactly himself, never stepping out of character – well, he wouldn’t would he, he’s Hitler!) his TV and YouTube appearances take off, he becomes a media star and plans the rebirth of his political party. Scary elements creep in – he finds loyal accomplices in the form of the faithful Sawatzki and his secretary Eva Kormeier (who still think he’s the best impersonator in the world) and the rubbish he spouts seems to find a resonance in modern Germany. Despite hiccups and misunderstandings, we leave Germany once more in the thrall of the Führer with a slightly worrying (prognosis) for the future…
This is initially a very hard book to deal with on a number of levels; because despite all you know about the man and the vile horrors that took place under his regime, you actually find yourself sympathising with the Hitler figure as he tries to deal with the banalities of modern media types and the brain-numbing qualities of daytime television; until you realise that he’s just a tool in the author’s hands and the satire is actually aimed at the state of modern Germany.
The stupidities of modern life are thrown into sharp relief when set against Adolf’s vision of a German race of good, clean, hardworking people with normal values and a happy life – however unrealistic or idealised that vision may be. We can all identify with his reaction when he switches on the TV and learns how to use a remote control:
“So this was a modern day television set. It was black, with no switches or knobs, nothing. Holding the box in my left hand I pressed button number one, and the apparatus started up. The result was disappointing. The picture was of a chef, finely chopping vegetables. Unbelievable! Having developed such an advanced piece of technology, all they could feature on it was a ridiculous cook!”
But as Hitler goes up and down the channels he comes across more cooking, Jeremy Kyle-style programmes and old films. Through his eyes, using shock tactics, our world looks very trivial indeed.
Disturbingly, the book is also very funny. The Führer and his colleagues are constantly misunderstanding each other, as he says what he means and takes what they say at face value. The media types think he’s method acting, staying in character at all times, whereas he is just being himself. Only we, the readers, can see how they are completely at cross purposes, but each thinking they completely understand each other.
It is only when the past comes back to haunt Hitler in the form of the family of his faithful secretary that things take a more serious turn. Fräulein Kromeier turns out to have Jewish heritage, with great grandparents who were sent to the gas chambers, and this leads Adolf to what I think is one of Vermes’ main points with this book:
“These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end… In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Führer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Führer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including the Jews… Either there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”
What’s chilling to realise is that Hitler actually *had* to be as plausible as he is portrayed here, or else how could he have taken in a whole nation? It’s simply laziness that leads us to simply see Hitler as a monster and not a human being, albeit a warped one. And Vermes obviously thinks his homeland is still ripe for exploitation as this book is nothing more than a warning that we’ve created a modern society full of idiocy in which another Hitlerian regime is entirely possible. As the book ends with Adolf recuperating after an attack and planning his next move, we realise that Vermes has portrayed a world (and specifically a contemporary Germany) where the mistakes of the past *could* be repeated because we really haven’t learned from them.
I can understand why “Look Who’s Back” caused a storm on its publication. Not only does it confront a country with its past, forcing it to accept that it was not just one man who caused all those atrocities; it also shows that modern Germany (like many other Western countries) is in a state where a figure such as Hitler could easily come to power again – in fact, someone like Nigel Farage springs to mind with his startlingly right-wing views and inexplicable popularity. This audacious book confronts the reader with some very unpalatable truths about human nature, about how easily biddable the masses are, and makes us realise how we really need to take responsibility for what is going on in the world around us.
This was a really compelling book – thought-provoking, disturbing yet surprisingly enjoyable and readable. It left me feeling admiring of Vermes’ talent as a writer, uneasy about the fact that I felt any sympathy with Hitler and his reaction to the 21st century and worried about the way our world is heading…
Interestingly, after writing this review I went to search for a picture of Vermes online and came across a fascinating piece on the book from The Guardian. A couple of pertinent quotes from the author and German media:
“The fact is we have too much of a stereotype of Hitler,” he told German media. “He’s always the monster and we can be comforted by the fact that we’re different from him. But in reality he continues to spark real fascination in people, just as he did back then when people liked him enough to help him commit crimes.”
“I want to show that Hitler would have a chance to succeed nowadays just as he did back then, just in another way,” said Vermes.
But it has triggered a mixed response by critics. “We laugh but it’s a laugh that sticks in the throat,” wrote Die Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Germany, it adds, “has a Hitler fixation which has taken on almost manic proportions. Hitler poses in reliable frequency on magazine covers, wanders like a ghost … through the TV channels … Vermes satirises this ‘Hitleritis’, but his novel draws on it as well and even lends it a new dimension, that of not laughing about Hitler, but with Hitler.”
You can read the rest of the article here.