By Kai Maristed
Daniel Kehlmann’s narrative gift is so prodigious as to be almost aggravating.
Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from the German by Ross Benjamin. Pantheon Books, 352 pages, $26.95.
Ulenspiegel … was a good story teller, better than the abbot and better than the fat count too, and his stories distracted the fat count from the throbbing pain in his hand. Don’t worry, said the fool, that night the wolves would find enough [elsewhere] to eat.
The art of storytelling began with sheltering-in-place. Easy to picture our anxious and cave-bound forebears prodding an elder or shaman for a narrative, a ballad, a fable: that magic stream of words that makes the walls dissolve. Had our ancestors stuck to hunting and sleeping, had there been no wild storms and and slavering predators or enemy tribes to enforce idleness around the fire, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare. Or Hamilton, or Stephen King… or the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann.
In this time of Covid we are suddenly, eerily thrown back to that original moment. Confined in small apartments, bored to hell and terrified of the invisible threat lurking without. Exhausted from having ventured to work in the danger-fields of meatpacking or frontline nursing. Fearful of strangers. Craving a story, a new story, one powerful enough to carry us away, make us laugh again, and open our hearts.
Daniel Kehlmann’s narrative gift is so prodigious as to be almost aggravating. He has tackled the contemporary world with wit and mystery in F and Me and Kaminski. His dowsing-rod instinct for “found” historical treasure has delighted readers before: Measuring the World, Kehlmann’s 2008 breakthrough bestseller, was a boldly altered portrait of the famous naturalist, mapmaker, and adventurer Alexander Humboldt, and a rousing cliffhanger. Immediately after came Fame, a somewhat prophetic collection of short stories revolving around just that. The only Kehlmann book that hasn’t grabbed me completely is a little red clothbound volume he penned with a friend, Requiem fuer einen Hund. (Requiem for a Dog.) Maybe I should give it another chance.
Tyll, since it came out in 2017, has sold over 600,000 copies in Germany. The novel reads large, but actually clocks in at under 350 pages. It is long-listed for the International Booker Prize and has also been snatched up for a Netflix series, “coming,” apparently, whenever the New Normal permits.
One reason the novel reads large is that it sets out very deliberately. In fact, slowly. As I remarked to a friend, this is one of the most German novels I’ve read in a long time! Tyll, like its eponymous hero, meanders, dwells on detail; it can be repetitious in the incantatory way of tales told aloud, and is in no rush to orient the reader in place and time. (Giveaway: we’re wandering in greater Germany, during the Thirty Years War). But after being dropped into this richly atmospheric world without a compass, in the company of quirkily amusing or repellent yet amusing characters, one surrenders to a pacing out of step with most present-day fiction. The novel’s structure is a throwback, a picaresque collage of dramatic scenes and incidents, accruing meaning as the characters travel round and round an increasingly devastated land. But then, why should a story set during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648) bow to current literary norms that despise discursion, require clear chronology, squeeze word count, and “cut to the chase”? How incongruous would that be, for an era — in which only the rich had clocks and calendars — driven by belief in demons and dragons, in the battle raging on Earth between God and Lucifer, in eternal punishment and, rarely, reward?
My own introduction to Tyll came thanks to the digital revolution, as an audio download in the original (books not being shipped from Germany). Eleven plus hours on long Covid-solitary walks. With a voice in your ear it’s hard to cheat, to skim or skip ahead. And oral delivery suits the opening scene, narrated by a “we,” in which a famed traveling entertainer and two women enter a village to enchant its poor, hardworking inhabitants from morning to dusk with dazzling tricks and performances that gradually darken, provoking a havoc that peels the masks off long-simmering jealousy and hatred. The players pocket the money and rattle on out, by donkey cart. A year later war will wipe out the village, and the story of this impish, malicious, compassionate jester named Tyll begins.
Born the son of a poor miller, raised on groats and water, weedy Tyll hones the useless skills of ropewalking and juggling while his dreamy, naive father practices healing, hoards Latin books he can’t read, and obsesses over the brainteasers of infinity. When father Claus is entrapped by a traveling pair of memorably loathsome Jesuits and tortured to confess to witchery, Tyll barely escapes inquisition by running off with the baker’s daughter, Nele. Had he already, under duress, betrayed his father to the slimy priest Kircher, proud author of England’s Gunpowder Plot? Did he, just before the lethally ludicrous Jesuits arrived, survive a terrifying night left alone in the forest by allying with the devil himself? Kehlmann loves mystery; these questions hover in the background and echo to the novel’s end.
Most of the figures surrounding Tyll are historical. The crude warrior king Gustav Adolf of Sweden, wily James I of England and his proud hapless daughter, Liz, her not-too-bright consort the King of Bohemia (whose greedy acceptance of that crown from the hands of “rebel” nobles ignited the whole damned catastrophe), the military genius Wallenstein — all are brought alive with a quickness and sureness that escapes others writing in this genre. (Hilary Mantel’s overwritten costume dramas, hefty doorstoppers that struggle in vain to animate Cromwell and his age, come to mind.) Tyll and Nele, however are creatures of Kehlmann’s own making, a chaste duo in the mold of Hansel and Gretel. He has brought back the renowned 14th-century jester and trickster Till Eulenspiegel, whose sly exploits are still read to German kids today, to pilot a novel that is not really about “Tyll all. It’s monstrous protagonist is the Thirty Years’ War itself.
As the deposed King of Bohemia approaches Gustav’s camp, in a last desperate bid for support, he sees that ‘the earth was churned up. The horses sank in…. Muck was heaped up dark brown on the roadside … the excrement of a hundred thousand people…. sick horses lay on the ground, children played in the filth, women nursed infants or washed clothes in tubs of brown water…. Here the King saw something horrible. He didn’t realize at first…. It was dead children. Probably none of them older than five… They lay there heaped up and discolored, with blond, brown and red hair, and if you looked closely many pairs of eyes were open.
Who, other than you European history majors, knows much or ever thinks about that pan-European conflagration, fed by a mind-numbing, shifting tangle of political and religious motives? A reminder before the quiz: The Thirty Years’ War probably claimed between four and 12 million lives. 20 percent of Europe’s people perished, with some areas seeing their population fall by as much as 60 percent. Around 450,000 people died in combat. Populations were displaced, swaths of countryside lay empty and razed while refugees crowded elsewhere, so that famine and made up the lion’s share of the death toll. From Oslo to Vienna, with significant side-trips across the channel, bubonic plague found ideal breeding grounds.
Kehlmann throws the reader deep into the morass of this many-sided, multigenerational slaughterhouse. But the horrors of war, whether depicted by a Céline, or Stephen Crane, or Pierre Lemaitre, have a numbing sameness. Why resurrect this one, other than to disprove any notion that conflicts before the modern era were “chivalrous,” less barbaric, the damage more limited to standing armies and nutty aristocrats?
Apart from offering a story well told, Tyll delves into three or four fascinating aspects of those 30 years. First, they were the crossroad decades where magical thinking ran neck-and-neck with the birth of empiricism. Kehlmann has a party sending up the self-important “doctors” of the day. “‘I am a doctor of medicine and theology, in addition a chemicus specializing in dracontology. Dr. Kircher concerns himself with occult signs, chrystallography and the nature of music.’ Dr. Tesimond eats some groats, screws up his face, and puts the spoon down.” Our author is of course solidly on the side of reason and science … until in one short, late, moving passage, he entirely is not. It may be my favorite passage in the book.
Second, there’s the role in Tyll of language, theater, and play-acting. While the Latin-spouting “doctors” revile their own ugly, grunting German language, one brave soul, soon to succumb to the plague, writes poetry in German. “‘Our language is only just being born…. One must nurture a language, one must help it thrive!’ Fleming’s cheeks had turned red; his moustache was bristling slightly. ‘He who begins a sentence in German should force himself to finish it in German!'” In another part of the forest, literally, “Little Liz,” as Tyll fondly calls her, much prefers her native English. She is deeply in love with the theater, and in her continental exile misses the plays of a mediocre actor named Will Shakespeare even more than she does expensive tallow candles. Later Tyll adds a boiled-down Romeo and Juliet to his wartime traveling show. If anyone knows what all the sound and fury signify, it’s the fool.
The third theme is the war’s relevance to our time. It’s said that the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War set back the development of German art and culture by at least half a century. Certainly it anchored the enmity with France, and arguably gave rise, as the nation took shape and unity, to a fateful sense of being one against all. Finally, the scholar H. Munkler explores in a new book the striking parallels between that savage, devastating period and the present day maelstrom in the Middle East: also a witches’ brew of secular rivalry, religious fanaticism, territorial claims, and increasingly impoverished, migrating populations. This bulletin just in: we, too, now have our plague.
What about Tyll’s historical faithfulness? In an interview Kehlmann warmly credited the expert who inspired and advised the book, saying it hews fairly closely to what’s known, while adding fictional, plausible but unverifiable details, such as the food stuck in Gustav Adolf’s beard, and destitute Liz Stuart refusing at court to take off her rain-sodden fur cape, because the dress beneath is too shabby. The major exception is the ultimate scene, in which Liz plays a last, bold, desperate political card, va banque!, entirely imagined. But it’s immensely dramatic and satisfying, a cathartic climax to a journey through hell.
Tyll won’t be everyone’s beer. Those hoping for a more suspenseful, less elliptical presentation may wish to wait and check out the version Netflix eventually concocts. But that series, however well done, won’t be this book, and the pleasures of this novel, not least it’s crisp, adroit language, impeccably brought to English by translator Ross Benjamin, can and should be enjoyed — right now.
Kai Maristed studied political philosophy in Germany, and now lives in Paris and Massachusetts. She has reviewed for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other papers. Her books include the short story collection Belong to Me, and Broken Ground, set in Berlin. Recent pieces are The Toubaab, in Consequence, and Tyger, Tyger in the Southwest Review. Read Kai’s Paris-centric take on politics and the arts here.