Sunday, March 09, 2014

Review: Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

Oh the joy when I heard this gem had finally been translated into English! A bestselling phenomenon in mein Fazerland since its publication in 2012, it had tickled my curiosity since I first heard about it, and  delighted me when it was gifted to me by the ‘rents last Christmas.

Look Who's Back is a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in a 2011 Berlin car park, rescued by a newsagent who thinks him a hilarious and scarily convincing impersonator and promptly introduces him to some media fellers who in turn jump on the chance to line their pockets and boost the ratings by giving him some air time. 
The bewildered Fuehrer, meanwhile, has to adjust to modern society, its gadgets, people, multiculturalism and social media addiction,  and slowly planning, naively, clumsily, but with chilly calculation, his return to power, thus delivering a commentary on modern Germany that is equally frightening and hysterical. Let’s just say, when I read the German original, it was like hearing Adolf speak. I dunno if Vermes studied the speech patterns of Hitler before he started writing, but he did a wonderful job rendering his persona in his book. And the translation, although it inevitably lost the classic Berlin dialect spoken by some of the characters, managed to get incredibly close to the original.

It’s obviously funny seeing Hitler in his 1940s mindset interact with the contemporary age, similar to seeing Socrates and Billy the Kid stumble their way through 1980s mall strip California in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, but at the same time it scathingly satirises an increasingly dumbed-down, historically uninformed or indifferent multi-media generation that is too distracted by Reality TV, sensationalist headlines and Facebook Likes to see the danger the “born again” Fuehrer really poses.

Needless to say, there is a debate whether it is acceptable to make Hitler a subject of comedy. But it’s been done before countless times, with “The Producers”, with “The Dictator”, some more gratuitous, some with enough satire in it to render it more “acceptable”. If anything, “new” about it is only that the Germans are increasingly seen to have a sense of humour about their own history. Not in a belittling or insensitive manner, mind. Hitler and the Holocaust continue to remain a serious subject over there, deeply embedded in the German mentality and Constitution. But the – in my book – ridiculous and unhelpful self-flagellation by people who were barely the glint in daddy’s eye in 1945, undermining any approach of the subject in a grown-up way, is finally starting to cease; Hitler as a subject of comedy becoming less and less restricted to the terrain of risqué Stewart Lee-type German comedians, and is particularly well-balanced in this novel.

Comedy will always remain in the grey areas of acceptability, and perhaps that’s exactly what keeps us on our toes and debating; to speak the truth like a jester, in joke form to escape medieval beheadings or modern censorship. Take from this book what you will. I for one both enjoyed  and pondered it. Thoroughly. 

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