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.