Saturday 11 July 2015

Review - Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

A comic novel with Adolf Hitler as the main character? Really? Quite apart from the humourless fanaticism that characterised Hitler and the regime he founded, isn't it still a bit early to turn the most notorious name in modern history into a sympathetic figure of fun? Yes, it is. Or at least it's something that's very risky. As Gavriel Rosenfeld puts it, Look Who's Back flirts with "the risk of glamorizing what it means to condemn, giving voice to racist ideas in the process of making fun of them".

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 F├╝hrerbunker 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.


Speedy said...

One only has to look at how the Germans piously push the Greeks over the cliff - while dismissing their own debt relief as an entirely different matter - to appreciate that the Teutonic mindset still lacks that reverse gear, and that came to be embodied in the Nazis when Germany stumbled. Their treatment of Greece and arrogance over Europe is entirely consistent with what has come before, and could create havoc, yet again. Hitler was the sharp point of the knife, but it was the German people who wielded it.

It may not be helpful to play the blame game, but the state of Europe is very much about blame and national character. The Greeks are not blameless but German insistence on punishment - not least pour encourager les autres - is highly Germanic. Of course genocide is not confined to the Germans, but a tendency to hegemonic behaviour - you must play by our rules, because we know best - is very German. In a sense Hitler masked this dangerous characteristic - one that may be about to plunge Europe into mayhem yet again.

BCFG said...

It is good to see self criticism in the West, because Christ knows we need it and lots more. Instead of slagging off ISIS or desperate migrants we need a long long period of self reflection. Maybe then we can escape this consumerist idiocy that envelops us all.

Marx believed increasing wealth would civilise us, he got that wrong, all it has done is stupefy us.

The guy living next door to me has replaced his pvc windows 3 times in the last few years. Do we for a minute think he thought of the impact of this reckless spending, or that our harmful waste will end up in some African backwater?

When you watch a property show and see some couple complaining that the fifth bedroom doesn't receive enough light or reception room 2 is not big enough do we think for a minute that they or the people watching the show think, jeez man most of the world are living a very basic existence?

Our consumerist society labels everything as a thing of sale, everyone is judged, even the cats in commercials must conform to a certain level of cuteness! Meanwhile local authorities are bringing in face recognition software for entrance into a country park! We have high level security just for a pond and some fucking ducks!

The West are dangerous, reckless, thoughtless and must be stopped at all costs.

ISIS my arse!

asquith said...

BCFG, I'm pretty sure Goldenhill is an improvement on Mosul actually. The west is hardly perfect but it contains within itself the potential for improvement, and that is the work we must undertake.

You're right about Mammonism, which will only get worse after Ozzy Osborne relaxed Sunday trading laws. And yet there are always people who throw this up and stop madly running round, whereas you can't decide to be a non-Muslim in the Islamic State, or an atheist in Bangladesh. Think about that.

It is in thee human condition that we won't ever be happy. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? And we have acute poverty, and unlike Tories I accept the concept of relative poverty but as I say we have the means of improving our lot. Better I think to be some tosser constantly changing his windows and buying ever-larger plasma screen TVs than to live in the eleventh century, or Iraq.

Speedy said...

If ever there was the perfect example of Western decadence, it is BCFG's comment above. Analyse that, Phil.

BCFG said...

Speedy – you should get a job at the ministry of information. You have a nice line in redefining concepts.

A number of academic reports have shown that, among other things, a nation in a state of civil war is 100 times more likely to be invaded by a third party if oil is present. In this case, even if both sides are pure as the driven snow, the third party would have to invent something bad about them!

I am happy to be moralised on the terrible nature of ISIS but not by society’s hell bent on economic supremacy!

Interesting that part of the town centre strategy for local authorities is to pay some consultant to advise on the design of shops, in order to get people to spend their money on things they clearly don’t need! Or why call in the consultant in the first place? This consultancy usually involves a repainting job, make the shop more welcoming, and brand it so it fits in line with what the consumer wants, like the cute Cat in the cat food adverts!

Again are we really seriously saying that a society which indulges in an orgy of consumption amid world-wide squalor is in a position to lecture others?

ISIS my arse!

asquith said...

Enough of your words, BCFG. If you don't think that even Kidsgrove Job Centre is a better place than the of Christian, an atheist or of any Muslim Islamic State deems heretical, you're in no position to sneer at anyone.

Also we are free to disagree with Camoron and try to win people round to our point of view, which I don't think is a privilege given to foes of Abu Chatwin or Basher al-Asda.

BCFG said...

"If you don't think that even Kidsgrove Job Centre is a better place than the of Christian, an atheist or of any Muslim Islamic State deems heretical, you're in no position to sneer at anyone."

You have lost me completely here.

"The west is hardly perfect but it contains within itself the potential for improvement, and that is the work we must undertake."

Well everywhere falls into that category one way or another. But having economic supremacy certainly makes improvement easier. Just ask those who send their kids to private school.

All I am asking for is a bit more self criticism from the people of the West. I see very little of it, almost non existent. No, totally non existent.

Seriously, us criticizing the rest of the world would be a bit like Peregrine Andrew Morny Cavendish criticizing the eating habits of the homeless.

jim mclean said...

Freaky comments, is Godwins Law in place. Will I be banned for saying the H***** word? Some of the above statements seem a little bit iffy. Teutonic mindset,surely the English and Lowland Scots are Teutonic along with the Scandanavians. Oh well never mind, now back to Adolph, I think the thing I fear most is that his anti-semitism was just a political tool, a route to the top. He lived and earned his living in Vienna among the Jewish community, the officer that put him up for the Iron Cross was Jewish, no great hatred at that time. If I were a fiction writer I would be telling the tale of Comrade Hitler and the Bavarian Soviet Republic.

Roger McCarthy said...

While Mein Kampf is indeed 135,000 offences against the German language it is by no means the case that Hitler was invariably incoherent and unable to express himself in writing.

Hitler's second unpublished book on foreign policy is notably more lucid (although obviously mad and evil) and actually far more revealing than his first.

Prepared speeches made to slect elite audiences (as opposed to rallies and his impromptu ramblings to his servile courtiers) like the one recorded in the Hossbach Memorandum, that given to Dusseldorf industrialists in 1932 or his explanatory letter to Mussolini on why he's just invaded Russia are almost models of concision and clarity.

Frederic Spotts has also argued persuasively that Hitler's presentational, design and even architectural skills were of a far higher order than he was normally given credit for - and that much of what was assumed to be the work of Speer or Hanfstaengel (because they claimed credit for it) cane from the pen of Hitler himself.

If only the man had followed his half brother Alois to New York and founded a pioneering graphic design agency - or as Norman Spinrad fantasised in his satirical SF novel The Iron Dream became a comic book illustrator and pulp fiction writer...

Phil said...

I have no doubt of Hitler's oratorical skills - they are a matter of record. Of course, one of the reasons why Mein Kampf is so awful is that it was dictated to Rudolf Hess while they were both in prison. Rather than tidy it up for publication it reads like it was released unedited.

jim mclean said...

In my younger days a pal had most of the works of Stalin in English, The National Question was a favourite. Amazing how he was able to run an Empire and do all this writing.

Roger McCarthy said...

The contrast between Mein Kampf and Die zweite Buch is indeed so marked that it is difficult to see them as the work of the same author.

Given that Hitler was as dictators go profoundly lazy with a Bohemian hatred of schedules, deadlines, agendas etc (a quality which literally saved his life from assassination attempts on more than one occasion) it is surprising he 'wrote' as much as he did.

Another issue is that older books (including the likes of Bullock) have an uncritical attitude to memoirs by the likes of Speer, Hanfstaengel, Strasser, Rauschning etc which present an often dubious and sometimes provably false picture of the dictator.

Drawing analogies is particularly dubious as Stalin was in however perverted a sense a Marxist and thus a person of the book and wss Hitler's diametrical opposite in his working habits: spending most days reading and writing countless memoranda while occasionally taking time out to author densely argued works of linguistic and economic theory.

In any case a humorous treatment of Hitler is the last thing I can imagine reading (although I do recommend Spinrad's Iron Dream its grim humour is far more about the SF and fantasy genres back in the 50s and 60s and how well an emigre Hitler might have fitted into it as a writer and illustrator than it is about Nazism itself).

Roger McCarthy said...

In comparison to Lenin or Trotsky however Stalin published comparatively little and before his accession to power The National Question was indeed the only work of his that most Bolsheviks would have read.

It is also notable that during his long Siberian exile from IIRC 1913-1917 he wrote next to nothing and spent his days hunting, fishing, drinking and shagging barely pubescent peasant girls - even if deprived of reference books a Lenin, Trotsky or Bukharin would surely have used all that enforced leisure to produce a true magnum opus.

A true collected works including all those countless letters, memorandums and reports that were never intended for publication (many of which are still locked away in Putin's presidential archive) and the various works which were quietly memory holed during his reign would be fascinating though.

A scholarly analysis of how much of works like History of the CPSU (B) - Short Course was actually written by Stalin would also be interesting (at least to me...).

asquith said...

Didn't Stalin read and do personal censorship work on all manner of books, films and what-have-you? When he wasn't carrying out bank heists that is.

I did like the portrayals of him in the fact and fiction works by Simon Sebag Montefiore. And my old mate Solzy, of course.

jim mclean said...

I seem to remember reading about a history of a forgery scam run by the Bolshieviks which in the 1st edition did not mention Stalin and in the 2nd edition gave Stalin his "rightful" place as the brains behind the whole operation.