Monday 24 March 2014

Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes

So he's back..... in about a week Hitler will be hitting English bookshelves. I was first made aware of this brilliant novel when a Spanish customer came in asking for 'the book with Hitler's hair on the cover', I have to say that it took a wee bit of googling to track down which book he wanted, Er ist wieder da! by Timur Vermes, it seems that English is pretty much the last language to be gifted with this story. It has been worth the wait.
The story is based around a pretty simple, if potentially controversial premise; Berlin 2011, Hitler wakes up on the site of his bunker. He knows who he is but is confused to discover that sixty six years seem to have passed since he was last in the city. Obviously no one can seriously believe that it is the Adolf Hitler, and the assumption is made that a performance artist is trying to promote his image. He quickly gets a slot on a TV comedy show, where his message starts to hit home with the German public. All very tongue in cheek and very clever. At no point does Hitler modify or alter his message, the German Volk are superior in every way, the focus for women should very much be Kinder, K├╝che and Kirche, and of course that all of the ills faced by Germany can be laid at the feet of International Jewry. He repeatedly makes these points, but they are taken as satire, as parody, as a mirror being held up to the supposed evils in modern Germany; no one is willing to agree that they are taking these views seriously. Actual Neo-Nazis even attack Hitler for being a Jewish patsy mocking their own deep held beliefs and beloved former leader. Despite all of this disbelief Hitler's ideas are shown as being accepted and even adopted by many of the characters he encounters, the internal monologue allows us to see that several of these new 'followers' would be for the camps if Hitler were to have his way, but even his contempt is taken as a comedic farce.
Like other reviewers I'm tempted to say that this book is a work of genius. It manages to have some moments that are simply perfections of ridiculous satire and yet also can say dangerously profound things about modern race relations, and about perceptions of Germany during the Third Reich. Considering some of the messages about general German war guilt (or in fact current unwillingness to accept or acknowledge the dangers of considering it as something in the past), I am impressed that this has been such a big seller in Germany. 
Having had a chance to think about, and digest the book in general I am inclined to see beyond the comic initial layer, and think it actually is quite a scary read. There are certainly comic moments where Hitler is forced to confront modern day living, but overall the message seems to be just how easily something could grow again. The analogy that springs to mind right now is the situation in The Crimea and the Ukraine vs Russia. It's evident that propaganda has just as much impact in the modern world as it ever did, greater access to information does nothing to reduce the impact of clever propaganda and in fact only allows more outlets for it.
In this particular book it is the very fact that Nazi horrors have become part of the history and fabric of Germany's past that allow a complacent public to listen to Hitler once again. He is viewed as a comedian and so the dangerous underlying message behind what he is saying is allowed to pass virtually unchallenged.
Timur Vermes has created something that works well on both a superficial and quite profound level, as I said at the outset this is a genius of a novel.

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