|LOOK WHO’S BACK
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Adolf Hitler opens his eyes to find himself lying in the middle of a piece of waste ground in Berlin. The last few days – his final days in the Bunker – are a blur and it doesn’t take long for Hitler to realise that it is no longer April 1945, but the end of August 2011. Assumed to be a particularly good imitator who refuses to break character, Hitler gets a slot on a popular comedian’s show and his rants soon go viral on the Internet. It isn’t long before Hitler is more popular than he ever was at the height of his power, and he begins to plan, once more, for Germany’s future.
Timur Vermes’ highly satirical novel, Look Who’s Back, puts us firmly in the head of Adolf Hitler as he awakens in the 21st Century, unable to explain his long absence or the fact that he is still fifty-six years old despite almost seventy years having passed. Told in the first person by Hitler himself, we discover our own world afresh through the eyes of a man whose last memory prior to waking up is of his time in the Bunker in late April 1945. Vermes holds a mirror up to the modern world, and the reflection we see is far from flattering, as evidenced, for example, by this beautifully-written rant about the state of television programmes which, for me, hits the spot perfectly:
Practically deadened, I switch back to the rotund woman. Since my last visit [a matter of moments earlier] her adventure-filled life had been interrupted by a programme of advertisements, the end of which I just caught. Then the narrator insisted on explaining to me for the umpteenth time that this wretched bint had lost all control over her bastard halfwit excuse for a daughter, and all she had managed to accomplish in the last half-hour was to prattle on to a chain-smoking neighbour about throwing the little cretin out. “This entire coterie of hopeless cases belongs in a labour camp,” I declared vociferously to the television set.
What’s most interesting about this incredibly astute look at our modern world is how plausible it is. Not in the time travel/Hitler coming back from the dead aspect, of course, but in the novel’s key messages. Hitler is astounded – as is this reader – by how few people recognise him, most of the youth referring to him as Herr Stromberg. Our "hero", of course, is expecting immediate recognition and respect. Is he not, after all, the Führer of the Third Reich? It’s this lack of recognition, and the instant hit that this madman becomes, despite (or possibly because of) his racist and objectionable rants, that strikes the most fear into the reader. People can’t quite work out whether to take the whole thing as a joke and laugh (he is, after all, on a comedy show), or be offended by his rhetoric. Vermes’ message seems to be crystal clear here: we cannot learn from the past if we have forgotten what happened. While Hitler himself may never come back, someone with the same ideals, the same notion of how the world should be and – let’s face it – the same level of charisma, could easily rise to notoriety (in the good, "loved by the people", sense of the word) in this technologically advanced age where broadcasting is no longer limited to a few thousand people who can afford a wireless, or a television set. We are a gullible lot: if the TV or whichever tabloid newspaper we happen to pick up says it’s true, then it must be true. We’re obsessed with celebrity, and we form cults and shrines to the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most controversial, the most whatever people in the spotlight, and by doing so, we give them the power to pursue their own agenda and, quite literally in some cases, get away with murder.
With his choice of central character, Timur Vermes may well have found himself skating on very thin ice. How do you write Hitler and make him sympathetic enough to carry the reader for almost 400 pages? Somehow, he manages it, and we find ourselves fully engaged from the first page to the last. There is no doubt about it: monster or not, Hitler was a man of considerable charisma, and Vermes captures this side of him perfectly. Amongst the rants and the anti-Semitism (corralled somewhat by the brilliantly effective "the Jews are not a laughing matter"), there are moments of pure beauty that make us, if not forget, then at least put to the back of our minds, the terrible things of which this man has proven himself capable. Witness the fondness he feels for his typist, and the joy he feels when he realises that she and Hotel Reserver Sawatzki have become more than just colleagues.
From the outset, Look Who’s Back is a comedy of errors and misunderstanding, often with flabbergasting results. For example, the final word in the production meeting which sees Hitler secure his slot on Ali Gagmez’s popular show:
"There’s just one thing I want to get straight," Frau Bellini 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.
These misunderstandings serve to cement Hitler’s position, in his own mind at least, as a man on the rise, heading back in the direction of leadership and the fulfilment of his destiny, while meaning something entirely different to the person on the other end of the conversation. The net effect of this is that the reader is left feeling distinctly uncomfortable: there is more than a remote possibility that Hitler could come back to power because someone has inadvertently handed him the reins, believing him to be a harmless impersonator.
From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.