I’ll admit it – I bought this book after seeing the advert at a tube station and laughing at the pun “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious”
Modern day Berlin. A man wakes up on a piece of scrub land in Berlin. He’s in full military uniform. He’s unaware how he got there and has trouble remembering anything of the previous day or two. He’s Adolf Hitler.
The Adolf Hitler.
So – Hitler has, somehow, been removed from the pages of history and deposited back among modern Germans. A world he expected to not exist: he had given orders for it to be burnt to the ground. He believes that he’s here due to the intervention of ‘fate’ and has been enlisted to save Germany, again, from the horror it – according to him -finds itself in.
Mistaken as an impersonator, a very intense one who refuses to break character, he finds himself taken in by a newspaper vendor conveniently located close to a television production company who buy into his act and line him up with a slot on a comedy tv show.
The humour here in Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back is both laugh out loud and extremely dark.
There’s a fantastic section early in where, having been caught in civvies while his uniform is cleaned, Hitler berates a young tv producer who had made a comment about Poland. Chastising him for his slovenly appearance, Hitler launches into a tirade, doubting that the young man even knows where Poland is, demands to know if he’s ever served in the army while doubting so as he clearly does not know where his uniform is. Hitler knows where his uniform is at all times, produces a ticket from his pocket and announces “it is at the dry-cleaners”.
There’s the suggestion that Hitler write a marriage / relationship advice book: “you could call it ‘Mein Kempf – With My Wife'”.
There’s the point that Hitler’s uniform is a little damp and, for some reason, smells of gasoline…
The combination of Hitler of old mixing with the modern world is funny but can run the risk of being a one-joke pony with diminishing results. So Vermes uses the voice of Hitler to take a satirical swipe at present day politics – Putin is admonished for appearing with his shirt off, Merkel mocked, the ideals of Germany’s Green party likened to some of his own and the Hilter of old rocking up on the doorstep of the current National Democratic Party and tearing them apart as pale imposters.
There are, however, two elements that stop this book from being a great one. Both are down to the fact that the character here isn’t fictional. It’s hard to imagine the real Hitler ever acclimatising and adapting to modernity quite as wilfully and quickly as he does – in order to propel it toward it’s function – here. The fact that he takes so easily to computers and smart phones enables all that follows and is necessary as such but isn’t quite plausible. That being said, suspend your element of disbelief and get past it, it’s a comedy after all.
And… therein lies the rub. It is a comedy, never lays claim to be serious. But while the book is clearly a satire and takes swipes at all things modern and politico, it does so from the eyes of one of History’s monster. As a bit of a history buff I’ve spent several years expanding my knowledge of World War 2 – not the dates and the statistics, the human stories. A large part of my bookshelves are given over to it. I’ve read the accounts of those who both witnessed, suffered and lost at the hands of this nasty entity and his followers. Even if we are continually reminded that “the Jews are no laughing matter.”
There’s a theory that if you expose an audience to only one point of view, one take, one narrative for a certain amount of time, they’ll begin to find little ways to identify with that voice. To do so with Hitler is a very bold move. It works at times but the over-riding element here, especially given the lack of character change and arc (there’s no reason the real Hitler would consider any opinion other than his own so wouldn’t change), is that this is still told through the eyes of a man responsible for some of worst atrocities known to man.
As such Look Who’s Back fails to be completely laugh out loud throughout – it’s hard to laugh with abandonment at his admonishing of modern day Nazis for failing to to live up to the party when you know just what his version of living up to that party would be. But it is a very funny, satirical swipe at both how he rose to power in the first place and could, conceivably, do so again – anyone who’s been sickened by the rise of the petty, small-minded and similarly prejudiced Farage and his friends can see it’s not too much of a stretch after all.
This wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and a few moments that make you think.