The writing in this novel depends on winks and nods. You’re invited to be in on a big joke, assuming it is one.
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. MacLehose Press, 352 pages, $25.99.
By Harvey Blume
The premise of this by turns amusing, troubling, and, finally, off-putting novel is that Adolf Hitler has awakened in twenty-first century Berlin, hardly any the worse for wear, despite having shot himself in the head as the Allies closed in on his Führerbunker. Aside from a headache, he feels better than he did back then; suicide has stopped his hand from shaking. And he’s still very much Hitler — the Führer himself, with memory intact up to that point on the evening of April 30, 1945, when he took out his old pistol and showed it to Eva Braun.
He awakens fortified by the same fanatic resolve that had served him so well before. His first act as Hitler 2.0 is to withstand catcalls from neighborhood kids as, in full, smelly, military uniform, he wobbles into a newspaper kiosk to learn it is now August 30, 2011, at which point even his iron will can’t prevent another, albeit briefer, blackout. When he recovers, a solicitous kiosk owner offers him water and a seat. He is impressed by this Hitler. There are no lack of Hitler parodists competing on German TV, but none as earnest as this one, none as apparently unable to break out of character.
The kiosk owner wonders where Hitler is staying:
“At present, the question of my billeting is. . . how should I put?. . . somewhat unresolved. . . ”
“OK. So are you staying with a girlfriend?”
I thought briefly of Eva. Where might she be?
“No,” I mumbled. . . “I have no female companion. Not any longer.”
“Oooh,” the newspaper seller said. “Got you. . . Wasn’t really working out toward the end, eh?”
“That was be an accurate assessment of the situation.” I nodded. “Steiner’s army group offensive never got of the ground. Inexcusable.”
He looked confused. “With your girlfriend, I mean. Who was to blame?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Ultimately Churchill, I expect.”
The kiosk owner sees a bright future for this Hitler, and puts him up at the kiosk until something better can be arranged, possibly with the help of one of the television producers who stop by regularly to get a paper. One of them does, in fact, shortly sign Hitler up and so his steady climb back to the limelight begins.
Look Who’s Back invites comparison to Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There (1970), in which a dull, uneducated gardener is accepted as a sage, full of what’s taken for pithy wisdom and unable to speak anything but choice clichés to power. Of course, the difference between the man who becomes known as Chauncey Gardiner and the fellow who awakens as the one and only Hitler is vast. Chauncey makes his way by reflecting people’s smug selves back to them with satisfying simplicity. Hitler is always fully Hitler, spewing Hitlerisms for every occasion. Audiences enjoy his uncanny resemblance to the original, as he gets used to some fundamental differences between contemporary Berlin and the city that had been reduced to rubble in 1945 — all the better, he gloats, to deprive Stalin of any decent accommodation when he comes.
And Hitler has been brushing up. He puts his access to newspapers at the kiosk to good use, as he does television and that amazing — so necessarily Aryan — invention, the Internet, which he accesses in his office when his career as a TV personality takes off. He’s comfortable on camera, Goebbels and Riefenstahl having groomed his native talent for working a crowd. Every appearance, live or on air, serves as another mini Nuremberg rally, even if audiences sometimes respond with gales of laughter rather than ten thousand Sieg Heils!
There is definitely a niche for Hitler in the new Germany, much as he publically scorns its puerile prosperity and pitiful parliamentary dithering, which will, he knows, cave in as it did before when confronted by the charisma of the Führer. It astounds and aggravates him no end that the Germany lacks its historically defining trait — militarism. About Germany’s micro-contribution to the war in Afghanistan he fumes: “The sole outcome of this escapade was that the soldier’s heroic death, the most noble way a man can end his life, had been virtually eliminated. . . nowadays the German Volk thought it the most normal thing in the world for soldiers to return home from the front, and better still, unscathed.”
As for the Jews, Hitler thinks that at least on that score Himmler has been as good as his word, pretty much cleaning them out, though their pernicious effects nevertheless abound. Hitler has free reign on air; the more authentically ‘Hitlerian’ his rants, the higher the ratings. On the subject of the Jews, he has this conversation with a studio head:
“There’s just one thing I want to get straight,” [she] said, suddenly looking at me very seriously.
“What is that?”
“We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter.”
“You are absolutely right,” I concurred almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.
Double meanings like this one give the book its Being There effect. Hitler is so vain, so preening, so inured to self-doubt I kept hearing Jim Parsons — Sheldon on the TV hit Big Bang Theory, now God in An Act of God on Broadway — voice his lines. A Hitler played by Parsons would be so intolerably and absurdly out of touch with time and place he would also be likable, which is how Vermes slyly endeavors to make his Nazi.
Ironically, Hitler’s only real enemies are neo-Nazis. Others may be fooled or titillated by him, but they know he’s there expressly to mock them. They slip him warnings: “Stop all yur shit, you fukking Jewish basturd.” When he keeps on with his Hitler shtick, they jump him, breaking his jaw, collarbone, and five ribs. As he convalesces, Hitler concludes his next step should be to leave television behind and take up politics directly. The slogan he adopts for his campaign is: “It wasn’t all bad.”
The writing in this book depends on winks and nods. You’re invited to be in on a big joke, assuming it is one. But the conclusion to Look Who’s Back is one wink and nod too many — it just made me sick. Actually, that’s not quite the wrap-up. There’s an afterword in which Vermes delivers straight-up bios of Eva Braun, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the rest. Look Who’s Back is a best seller in Germany. The pretense is that its readers need Vermes to remind them who these people are. But Vermes doesn’t mean it; he’s just being cute, more than a little too cute for me.
Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.