Look Who’s Back

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It wouldn’t be the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize without the Nazis. Last year we had A Meal in Winter; the year before HHhH and Trieste – in fact, I’m fairly certain, that were you to consult every long list there would be at least one book with some connection to Nazi Germany. The likelihood is this simply reflects the increased chances of translation into English should there be a swastika waving somewhere in the background of your story. This year we have reached the apogee with a novel narrated by Hitler himself – Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back.

Look Who’s Back takes a simple premise (Vermes has said, “It is odd that no-one has thought of it before”): What if Hitler reappeared in the present? Not an allegorical Hitler, or a Hitler like figure, but Hitler himself, transferred from the last days of the war to contemporary Germany:

“I remember waking up; it must have been early afternoon…It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire…My first thought was, ‘What did I get up to last night?’”

Hitler is met with either indifference or the belief that he is a Hitler impersonator. The more he insists on his identity, the more he is congratulated on his method acting. This leads to some very funny exchanges in the novel’s opening:

“’What are you in? Have you got your own programme?’
‘Naturally,’ I replied, ‘I’ve had one since 1920! As a fellow German you are surely aware of the twenty-five points.’
‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere. Have you got a card? Any flyers?’
‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

Humour is also created by his displacement in time. On seeing evidence of a large Turkish community he imagines “the deployment of Turkish forces had brought about a decisive turning-point in the war.” He does not, at first, recognise a television set:

“To begin with I assumed that the dark, flat plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to laugh at Hitler: humour has been used throughout the ages to undermine the powerful, and was indeed used in Allied propaganda during the war. However, Hitler is not the object of the satire in Look Who’s Back – what would be the point? Hitler is instead used to satirise the present, and, in particular, our belief that such figures are firmly of the past, and could not emerge to popular acclaim today. It is not an accident that, in the novel, his popularity is established on what he calls the “internetwork”. We also see how those who humour him are quickly caught up in following him, for example when his secretary agrees to call, him “mein Fuhrer”, or when he ends a meeting of television executives by getting them to respond to his “Seig” with “Heil!”

The first person narrative is also a tool in this, ensuring the reader is enticed to feel sympathetic, especially when his criticisms of the modern world ring true. Vermes does not avoid his anti-Semitism (in fact he cleverly faces up to it with the double-edged phrase, “The Jews are no laughing matter”), but he also includes his vegetarianism, love of animals, and respect for the ordinary German. If we were uncertain of the novel’s warning, Hitler himself makes it clear:

“These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists…In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word.”

As with many novels which start with a brilliant idea, Vermes seems uncertain when to stop. (It’s never a good sign when one of the Reading Group questions is ‘How do you think the story might be continued?’) It could be argued that Vermes makes his point long before page 365, and that the ending, though amusing, is rather arbitrary. That said, this is still an entertaining novel with a serious message at its heart.

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18 Responses to “Look Who’s Back”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    This one has just been dispatched from the UK. Seems like a measured and balanced review here. We also cross paths with Nazis (and more) in The End of Days, Italian fascism in Bloodlines this year.

    • 1streading Says:

      I suspect it’s simply more likely to be translated if it involves World War 2 in some way as publishers will see it as marketable, but perhaps it an enormous amount of European literature focuses on this anyway.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    From what I’ve heard of this novel, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment on it being a satire aimed at the present. It sounds as if it raises some pertinent questions about the current political landscape.

    I’m going to pass on this one, but the Erpenbeck is on my list for the future.

    • 1streading Says:

      Well, if there was a contest between this and the Erpenbeck (say they were entered for the same prize) I know which would win! Look Who’s Back is interesting and entertaining, but The End of Days is masterful.

  3. A Little Blog of Books Says:

    I enjoyed the premise of the story but the second half was much weaker and didn’t add anything to the story. It’s the only IFFP book I’ve read so far which I really don’t think will make it as far as the shortlist (both the real one and our shadow panel one).

  4. Tony Says:

    Yep, pretty much what I thought (although I’ll probably be a little harsher). A one-joke book which struggles to sustain it throughout…

    • 1streading Says:

      I think I’m still subconsciously comparing everything to Butterflies in November from last year (as in, well, it’s not as bad as…) – its dulling my inner harshness!

  5. julikins Says:

    Interesting review. 365 pages?! That’s longer than what I expected based on the premise… would you still say it was a fast read?

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s a straight forward read written in a lively, reader-friendly style, so I would say it’s still a fairly fast read. With such limited time it is difficult to know what to prioritise!

  6. gertloveday Says:

    I though this took a long time to get into its stride. The setting-up of the Hitler personality was very cumbersome; contrary to Little Blog’s comment above I thought the more interesting part was the satire on the German state, the TV/Twitter culture and the way all political messages can be distorted to be the same message, which didn;t really kick in till about halfway through.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree that the satire on modern Germany (or modern Europe, I suppose) is the most interesting aspect of the novel, but I found the opening section quite funny (though I admit, that perhaps requires a rather childish sense of humour!).

  7. Bellezza Says:

    Certainly, how could we have an international prize without Hitler? (Or, for that matter, the horrors in the Middle East like last year’s winner?) At any rate, I particularly like this from your review: “Hitler is instead used to satirise the present, and, in particular, our belief that such figures are firmly of the past, and could not emerge to popular acclaim today.” That would be the whole point, for me, as I believe the evil and misuse of power that he represented will never truly die.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it’s too simple to dismiss Hitler as an exception – unfortunately that’s not the case. The novel does demonstrate how easy it is to be taken in by charismatic figures. – and makes the point that he was democratically elected (in fact, under the UK system, he would have had a majority).

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m sick of WW2 and Nazis in fiction, unless it’s pulp fiction and they’re being hit with a good right hander while fleeing dinosaurs (something far too rare in literary fiction in my experience).

    It’s funny with this review, when I saw it was about Hitler it was an instant no, but then the quote about “These days” was great so I thought maybe, then I saw 365 pages and it was an instant hell no.

    Entertaining is fine, but this sounds way too slight for its length. Great review though, in fact my favourite kind of review since I don’t now want to read the book.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m not particularly attracted to books about Nazis or WW2 myself, unless it is treated in some novel way – which, I suppose, you could say this does.
      Perhaps you might like A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar in which Hitler is a private detective (this is not based on having read it, only heard about it).
      A number of people have felt that the novel is too long to sustain its central conceit – I’m glad I’ve saved you the time it would have taken to read it!

  9. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Vermes, Look Who’s Back (German: trans. Jamie Bulloch), MacLehose […]

  10. Must Read Monday: Look Who's Back - The Steadfast Reader Says:

    […] I don’t believe that any blogs that I read on the regular have reviewed this book. In fact it wasn’t even in Creative Whim’s Ultimate Book Blogger Plugin. Regardless. I found a much more eloquent review over at 1streading’s blog. […]

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