Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

look whos backSo, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.

It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens.  It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker. 

In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk.  He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.

So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective.  And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.

On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany.  It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before.  But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:

 I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.  

The newspaper seller, assuming that his visitor is a Hitler impersonator,  allows Hitler to stay in his cabin while he sorts himself out.  The steady stream of customers are taken aback with the incredibly life-like Hitler, particularly when the realise that he acts in character all the time.  Before long a television produce approaches him to ask him to appear on a chat-show and the fun begins.  The audience evidently believe that the Hitler act is an ironic or satiric take on modern Germany and is hugely successful.  The rest of the novel follows this course through many twists and turns each one more bizarre, proving the Timur Vermes has stumbled upon a rich seam of material which makes for a unique book (perhaps to open up a new genre of comedy for years to come).

It is Hitler’s gradual discovery of the modern world which provides much of the entertainment.  Take for example, when Hitler stays in his first hotel room and discovers television:

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! Admittedly, the Olympic Games could not take place every year, nor at every hour of the day, but surely something of greater import must be happening somewhere in Germany, or even in the world! Shortly afterwards a woman joined the man and provided an admiring commentary on his knife skills. My jaw dropped. Providence had presented the German Volk with this wonderful, magnificent opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings. 

. . . interruptions for advertisements, as frequent as they were abrupt, declared where the cheapest holiday could be obtained, a claim, moreover, which a large number of shops made in exactly the same way. No sane person would be capable of remembering the names of these outlets, but they all belonged to a group called W.W.W. My only hope was that this was nothing more than “Strength through Joy” in a modern guise.

The location of Hitler's Bunker

The location of Hitler’s Bunker

I think the best feature of the book is that the author has allowed no change in Hitler whatsoever.  He is still a totally deluded, misanthropic fascist, utterly convinced of the rightness of his cause.  In today’s Germany, as pluralist a society as any modern European nation, his views seem utterly bizarre being met initially with shock but rapidly interpreted as some sort of art installation, a Gilbert and George of television.  Because they believe him to be acting in character rather than a genuine Hitler, people tolerate his extremist views, perhaps their laughter covering up a secret approval of some of the comments he makes on modern society.

Hitler’s appeal to the media types who surround him seems to be based on the appeal of some of his views and the consistency of his character.  One television associate says, “I love your approach. The vegetarianism and everything — you’re not faking it; somehow, with you, it’s part of the whole concept”.  Describing Angela Merkel as “a chunky woman with all the confidence and charisma of a weeping willow”, the clarity of Hitler’s message evidently resonates once again with those who hunger after a simpler interpretation of the modern world.

The book contains some very funny, if distasteful lines.  When asked why he doesn’t have a passport someone asks him whether he ever travelled abroad.  Hitler replies, 

Well, obviously: Poland, France, Hungary…the Soviet Union.’ ‘You got in there without a passport?’ I thought about it for a moment. ‘I cannot recollect anybody having asked me for one’ 

When discovering the extent of recycling,

If only the Volk had made a greater effort at the right time, there would be no need to collect refuse in this manner, given the wealth of raw materials in the East.

With such scope for black humour, this book makes for a rather scurrilous alternative history.  I was actually reminded of some of Sue Townsend’s books like The Queen and I or True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts Aged 14 ¼ and while the book maybe highly significant in Germany, perhaps in Britain with our irreverent humor about our history and current situation the book does not come across as particularly radical.  I enjoyed reading it, I wonder how well it’s subversiveness translates into another culture where the subject matter would not be met with any particular sense of shock.

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