Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes, translated by Jamie Bulloch, MacLehose Press, RRP£15, 375 pages
Timur Vermes’s comic novel, a succès de scandale in Germany, imagines Adolf Hitler waking up, alive but dazed, in a scrubby patch of waste ground in Berlin in 2011. Minimally curious about the plot device that has got him here, this Hitler goes about being himself – and in short order becomes a YouTube sensation and is signed up by a television production company as a comedian.
The more he does his own thing without cracking a smile – denouncing immigrants, lamenting the condition of the Volk and so on – the more everyone thinks he is a hoot. People at the TV production company love him. They take him for a method-acting fanatic who never comes out of character: TV people being, it’s implied, completely unable to tell the difference between sincerity and deadpan. Not so academic a problem when you look at the popularity of the allegedly anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné.
Vermes’s set-up invites literary comparisons. The more remote one is George Steiner’s short novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of AH (1981), in which a team of postwar Jewish Nazi-hunters collars the Führer hiding out in South America and, while carrying him out through the jungle, has to hear his apologia pro vita sua. The closer one, which really does seem a parallel in terms of intent and execution, is Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (2012), which imagines an elderly Anne Frank being discovered, alive and ornery, in an attic in rural New England.
Look Who’s Back has neither the showy seriousness of the first nor – at least as far as this reader can tell – the basement-level seriousness of the second. Auslander’s bad taste is to a purpose: it’s an aggressive, almost Oedipal shrugging-off of Holocaust-solemnity for Jewish-American writers. One of the hardest things for a monoglot English critic to gauge about Look Who’s Back, though, is also obviously one of the most important things about it. How does it strike German taboos? Is it a depth-charge, or a blown raspberry? And could they be the same thing?
What I can say is that Jamie Bulloch’s English translation is good enough that it feels like its own thing. His Hitler, given new trousers, mishears “jeans” for “genes”; someone asks Hitler, thinking him a stand-up comic, about his flyers (“Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe … ”); asked whether he’s had any operations, Hitler says: “Sea Lion, Barbarossa, Cerberus … ” The jokes are very funny. They are also, slightly, one-note.
The Hitler we now see and think of is a collection of tics, of obsessions: it is, in fact, the two-dimensional character of a stand-up comic’s routine. So what is reincarnated in Vermes’s book is not so much Hitler as the idea of him. And the basic joke is that by unselfconsciously and literal-mindedly being himself, Hitler becomes popular. Whether it’s that he touches on uncomfortable truths, that he amusingly spoofs the idea of Hitler, or that he is a point of unbending principle in a relativistic world doesn’t matter. In an age of wall-to-wall irony, even something as singular and as horrible as Hitlerism is available to be reappropriated as kitsch.
There are witty sideswipes. The things our Hitler approves of – by association – look bad. Taking stock of the new Germany he notes, for instance, that though the Reichsmark is no longer legal tender, someone “had clearly adapted my plan to turn it into a European-wide currency”. He enrages a Green politician by applauding her plans for energy self-sufficiency (“Hang on one minute! For completely the wrong reasons!” she exclaims). And the terrible repeating, self-criticising gag – teed up by his anxious TV entourage – is about the boundaries of taste. “We’re all agreed the Jews are no laughing matter,” his producer warns. Hitler, of course, couldn’t agree more.
Where Vermes bottles it, slightly, and in the process restricts his novel’s range, is that he doesn’t quite trust his Hitler to have an independent life. The first-person narration is too nudge-winkingly self-mocking. Hitler talks about “relaxation after a hard day’s warmongering”, or missing out on a family Christmas because “reorganising a Reich, cultivating the national movement amongst the Volk, ensuring my order not to surrender a centimetre in the East was carried out with due fanaticism and an iron will – these are not the sorts of matters one can attend to with children, not even with a wife”.
Funny, yes. But funny like a cartoon. If you incorporate the critique into the narrative voice – and the critique is boilerplate – are you satirising an age of wall-to-wall irony or succumbing to it? This is a rollickingly enjoyable, forgettable, cleverish book that – at least in English translation – doesn’t quite answer the question satisfactorily.