Billed as a merciless satire, Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back delivers in spades, and with some gloriously Hitler-esque touches. The Führer wakes up in a field in Berlin in 2011, alive and well and ready to take back power from the rabble running the place now. His confusion at his circumstances are short lived, but the results are devastatingly funny.
Plot: Adolf Hitler wakes up alive and well in 2011, in a field just outside Berlin. Baffled as to how he got there, and the absence of the Russian advance, he has little more than a sketchy memory of his previously last day on earth and gets a headache thinking about it. No matter, as the Führer orients himself firmly towards the future: first, discover what disaster the motherland faces for Providence to recall him to Germany’s defence; and secondly, get back into power.
Review: The main conceit of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back should have already drawn a smile to your face – what if Hitler was alive and well, and living in Berlin? His execution on that premise will have you laughing out loud at bravura scenes within this merciless satire. Sure, there are some easy jokes within the opening of the novel – Hitler’s technological, old man fish-out-of-water act gets tired pretty quickly. But Vermes hits on the key, cockroach element of the historical figure’s personality – an ability to adapt, and turn whatever life has thrown to his own evil purposes. That’s exactly what happens here, to amusing effect. The secret to the Führer’s success? Well, let him relate it himself:
“The rules are the same as they were sixty years ago,” I said. “They never change. The only difference is that there are fewer Jews to worry about. And so the Volk is in better shape.”
Part of the fun of this sneakily serious novel is having the world related from the perspective of the world’s most hated figure. Those worried that this might encourage some sympathy for a downtrodden Adolf needn’t – he alienates the reader at every turn, and Vermes is masterful at turning this alienation into a source of humour. But the sneakily cunning lesson that Vermes offers is not on politics at all, but instead on the state of modern culture and media – and it is to the latter that Hitler quickly turns, in an effort to reinitiate his rise to power. He’s done it once, so the second time should be easier, right?
And amusingly, it is – with the world’s most masterful propagandist given a thousand different, democratised (and boy does he spit at that word) tools to access his beloved Volk, helped along by an obliging newspaper kiosk owner and eventually his own production company. Quickly going viral, Hitler is the new hit – with just enough irony, meta, and retro to appeal to modern comic sensibilities. No one takes the new Hitler seriously, in fact they are all under the impression that his performance is satire, and having access to his stream of consciousness enlightens the reader as to just how serious he is. There’s a beautiful critique of modern media and political engagement within all of this; as the audience distances themselves from the material to be in on the joke, but in doing so concedes power to a nutcase. And this isn’t Vemes’ only target; in one bravura scene, he takes aim at the generic prose and expectation game played in modern politics. Hitler, with cameras in tow, takes a trip to the remnant of the neo-Nazi fringe and tracks down the party headquarters of the National Democratic Party of Germany (itself an ironic, marketing-friendly title) to evaluate what has become of his beloved party. He is not happy with the results; nor the quality of candidates he finds. The audience for his program get much amusement out of the idea of a far-right party not being far-right enough, and too mealy mouthed, for Hitler himself.
It works on many levels; but ultimately, it is the grandmother of a staff member who hammers the covert message home. The mistake of Hitler’s opponents is made again, as they refuse to take him seriously (although the Bild does, to its eventual, hilarious detriment). The horror is that this isn’t funny; and those who remember aren’t laughing. Vermes has a knack of taking the guffawing reader right up to a certain satirical point, and then pushing them over the edge to contemplate where that laughter is coming from and what it might be doing to social or political discourse. It’s a stroke of genius. That said, some of it is also just downright funny, pulling out the absurdities of Hitler the man and his overblown table talk. An example of this occurs when Hitler contemplates the segments his new show will consist of, his staff pitching ideas as to what next:
As always when people are overtaxed creatively, they come up with the most dubious suggestions. I was to film bizarre reports such as “The Führer pays a visit to the bank” or “The Führer at the swimming pool”. I dismissed such claptrap out of hand. Having to watch politicans engage in sport is little more than an embarrassment for the Volk. My sporting activities were brought to a swift conclusion after my takeover of power. Football players, dancers – they are the ones people want to see, executing their moves to perfection. Their disciplines may even rise to the height of great art. In athletics, for example, a consummate javelin throw is a magnificent sight to behold. But then imagine that someone like Göring comes along, or that matron chancellor. Who would want to watch either of those two whales attempt the sprint hurdles? It would not be a pretty sight.
Vermes’ writing is a mix of the sharp, the gross, the slapstick, and everything in between to level the influence that this ridiculous man might have. But in doing so, he also highlights how many of these tools of propaganda and misinformation have been reacquired by modern journalism and the twenty four hour news cycle. Vermes, himself a journalist, obviously nursing a grudge against the emerging, banal, short attention span theatre we are creating for ourselves – and he also highlights, in a reduction ad absurdum way how these mechanisms are ripe for abuse.
Turns out that the perfect man of the hour is Adolf Hitler, the embodiment of everything that can be done with everything that is wrong with our current systems of social discourse and political action. The novel closes on a few lines which are a Godwin’s law punch in the gut. On the verge of a political resurgence, our anti-hero must adopt a slogan. The leading choice? ‘It wasn’t all bad.’
Rating: Four stars.