What's the fuss all about? The novel finds Hitler waking up and reeking of petrol on a vacant Berlin lot, which the reader is left to assume was on the site of his famous Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. Having no clue what has happened and puzzled by the lack of bomb damage and young people sans Hitler Youth attire, he's taken in by a friendly newspaper vendor. He learns that it's 2011 and has to adjust to modern times. Taken for an impersonator that never breaks character, the comedy lies in his entirely inappropriate answers to every situation. And very quickly this Hitler becomes famous. Finding fame on a skit show, a YouTube slot quickly follows along with a dedicated show and a list of awards. One of the funniest moments of the book is where he pays an impromptu visit to the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (NPD), the far right outfit that foreswears but unofficially has considerable continuity with the Nazis. Needless to say, Hitler is far from impressed and hilarity ensues as he unknowingly tries to trap the hapless chairman into admitting their fealty to national socialism on camera.
I don't want to give too much away, except to say Look Who's Back is a very funny novel. It's also perhaps surprising that it originated in Germany where, understandably, Hitler remains very much a taboo topic. Problematically, there are almost moments when Hitler is cast in a sympathetic light, especially when he is roughed up by a couple of Neo-Nazis who take him as a Jew-orchestrated send up of their beloved inspiration. Having read Mein Kampf, which is not an experience I'd recommend to anyone, in may ways Vermes captures Hitler's character well. While not the rasping, ranting demagogue of the newsreels, the monomaniacal self-belief is there and the exceedingly limited racialised way of looking at the world is well-rendered, though understandably without the kinds of terms Hitler would have thought with. Where Vermes goes off-piste with Hitler's character is that the narrative convention of novel writing means rendering the fuhrer coherent and well-expressed. As his semi-autobiographical rantings and musings demonstrate, this was definitely not the case.
Of course, this book isn't really about Hitler. It's not even about standing attitudes toward his legacy. It's about modern Germany. One thing that always strikes me about reading modern European literature in translation is how similar societies over the channel are to dear old Blighty. It's the Americans who are weird. Therefore, Look Who's Back it's about us too. Vermes has the superficiality of celebrity culture in his sights and exposes the impossibility of authenticity under these conditions. Our Hitler is the real Hitler, but his "authentic" offerings can only be viewed as a simulation of the real thing, his declarations for lebensraum, musings on the "interracial mixing" of dogs, and attack on the cowardly lampooning of other nationalities (yes, really) are taken as affectations of an impersonator, his message - which is deadly earnest - a bit of harmless distraction to be laughed at. Like so many offensive celebrities, as per Clarkson and Hopkins, Hitler is allowed to peddle his nonsense because there is money to be made. The consequences, which are a coarsening of public discourse and an evacuation of sympathy and feeling from popular culture always play second fiddle to ratings.
It's also a polemic against the the disappearance of history. No one in the novel takes Hitler seriously, but his reappearance allows for the characters - mainly his media support - to indulge in some dubious recrudescences. Replying "jawohl mein fuhrer!", indulging a mass sieg heil by the production staff, saluting him, and providing him a chat show adjutant replete with SS uniform speaks of the amoral, ahistorical grinding of an entertainment industry that repackages and effaces the past as it sees fit. Even something as disgusting as the Nazi period.
In all, a very funny read. The satire and the criticism isn't particularly cutting edge - it's been done before. But this is about chuckles, not chin-stroking.