Saturday, 5 March 2016
Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes Review
Adolf Hitler awakens in 21st century Berlin, his last memories being in the Fuhrerbunker 70 years earlier before the Allies broke through. Though understandably perplexed by his situation, Hitler quickly adapts and is mistaken as a Hitler impersonator, the most dedicated method actor who never breaks character. He’s put on TV where he becomes a hit politically-incorrect “comic”. Hitler once more begins his rise to power in Germany…
Before picking it up, about the only thing I knew about Timur Vermes’ novel Look Who’s Back was the setup – Hitler in 21st century Germany – and that it was a comedy/satire. I had no idea what German comedy could possibly look like but I was eager to find out – and then discovered it was exactly what I thought it was: non-existent! I also thought a satire with Hitler as the main character had potential. The idea seems to but Vermes doesn’t realise it here - German society wouldn’t take Hitler seriously today? Weak.
It does have one thing going for it though and that’s its subversiveness. Hitler is challenged once about the Holocaust to which he replies matter-of-factly that he would never have achieved it without the full support and help of the German Volk – and he’s right. I’m sure the German people would like to believe that the Holocaust was down to Hitler and a handful of villainous cronies and that millions of ordinary people had no part in it; but given the scale of the operation, that’s impossible.
The novel is told in the first person with Hitler speaking directly to the reader. Vermes writes him in such a way that he sometimes comes across simply as an old gentleman who loves animals and children and who believes in strong leadership for his people. He’s not an over-the-top cartoon peppering his speech with constant racial slurs (given how hard it must’ve been to get the basic concept of the novel published, I expect it would’ve been even harder had it included repeated insults against the you-know-whos!); Hitler comes off as an almost likeable, relatable person.
And that’s what’s so subversive about the novel. If at any time the reader starts liking the protagonist (even agreeing with him as I did two paragraphs above!) then the realisation that you like Hitler – one of the most evil men in history – even for a passing moment, comes shuddering through. Vermes isn’t doing it to trick readers though; rather he’s showing how the people in the 1930s conceivably fell for Hitler themselves. In this way it proves his (and Hitler’s) assertion that the Holocaust couldn’t have happened without the help of the German Volk - if, knowing what we know today, Vermes makes Hitler even slightly likeable to modern readers, imagine how appealing he must have been to a society living in a post-Treaty of Versailles world. Of course millions would - and did - support him making them culpable of all the implications of that support.
I should clarify that Vermes isn’t glorifying the Nazis – at no point does he make them seem remotely positive or portray Hitler or any Nazi as an admirable figure. All he’s doing is humanising Hitler. He still says and believes revolting things – he says “The Jews are no laughing matter” which the people around him believe means that he (the “Hitler impersonator”) refuses to make jokes about the Jews but which the reader knows means something very different – but Vermes determines to also show him as a man and not only as a much (rightly) demonised figure. And no, it’s not explained how Hitler survived and reawakened in Berlin 70 years after the war but that’s not the point. It’s a necessary conceit for the novel to exist so don’t get too hung up on it.
All of which isn’t to say I liked the novel very much. I can appreciate its overall effect but the reading experience was very dull. I didn’t realise the premise I already knew going in – Hitler becomes a TV/internet star – was actually the entire novel! There’s barely any plot, let alone plot development, it’s just Hitler being Hitler and people thinking he’s a riot over and over and over again. There were some racial slurs against the Turks which were apparently the jokes and seemed quite acceptable to German audiences (I guess it’s a cultural thing – Germany comedy remains mystifying!) and Hitler has a goth girl assistant who, bizarrely like some Californian valley girl, ends all of her sentences with a questioning upwards inflection – I think she was meant to be a comedic character? Except she wasn’t very funny? Her way of talking was just annoying?
And the novel goes on like this for 350-ish pages. Little changes in the plot let alone Hitler as a character who remains stiff and static. Vermes only has the one point to make throughout and it’s hardly an original one. Hitler commenting on reality shows, the proliferation of Starbucks and the poor quality of Ikea furniture is so banal and not at all witty or amusing. There’s no build-up to the finale because there isn’t one – the book just ends after a flat-line nearly the whole way through.
I can see why it was a bestseller in Germany as it’s very relevant to that particular audience in confronting their ancestors’ true selves as well as attempting to bring their experience to modern readers - but not so much to anyone outside of that country. Look Who’s Back isn’t poorly written nor is it a complete waste because of its clever overall effect, but it is a very boring and very unfunny satire.
Look Who's Back