Monday, 13 March 2017

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Review

Opening in 1960, former Nazi Howard W. Campbell Jr. is sitting in a Jerusalem jail awaiting trial (a la Adolf Eichmann did in real life) for his part in the Third Reich’s crimes as a radio propagandist - except he was really an American double agent, sending coded messages to the Allies through his broadcasts. But is he a hero for working to defeat Hitler or damned for furthering the Nazis convictions against the Jews in the process? 

Mother Night is the best Kurt Vonnegut novel I’ve read (though that’s not saying much as I’ve always thought he was overrated). I think that’s in part due to him not using stupid gimmicks like childish drawings (Breakfast of Champions) or hokey sci-fi elements (Slaughterhouse-Five); he’s telling a more-or-less straightforward and very interesting story and doing it really well too. 

I liked reading Howard’s journey from famous playwright to secret agent in Nazi Germany to the dark and tense post-war years trying to live under the radar in New York. Also, the cast are a colourful bunch ranging from his artist neighbour (who’s also a secret Russian spy) to a demented racist dental publisher to the mysterious American who recruited him as an agent. 

The only part of the novel that didn’t work for me was the nuanced depth Vonnegut attempts. Is Howard irredeemable because of his disguise as a Nazi propagandist or is it acceptable because he was really working for the Allies? For me the answer is clearly the latter, which is partly what makes him a likeable protagonist, but to Vonnegut Howard is guilty because “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Are we what we pretend to be though – can we be what we are when we’re not pretending? What about Howard’s apoliticism, his only allegiance being to his beloved wife Helga, their “Nation of Two”, and his true vocation as a playwright? Does none of that truth count because of the mask Howard wore for a few years, especially considering that it was in service to a higher cause? 

See, this is what’s always bothered me about Vonnegut: he’s too fucking cynical! Granted, Howard’s circumstances are complex and unique but Vonnegut always comes down on the negative side because he’s pessimistic, almost nihilistic, in his worldview. It’s a quality that makes him a compelling writer but it’s also quite limiting as his stories tend to always go in one direction - they become a little too predictable and repetitive in their overall themes. And the abrupt ending to this novel felt so pointless and uninspired. 

While I appreciated the thoughtful moral dimensions, they weren’t that engaging and I enjoyed Mother Night the most for being an entertaining, well-written and briskly-paced story. I’d definitely recommend this to new Kurt Vonnegut readers over his more famous novels and to any Vonnegut fans who’ve not gotten around to this yet.

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