Saturday, 24 May 2014

Review: Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

Look Who's Back book cover by Timur Vermes
Well this is a new one for me - having to justify why I chose to read a book that seems strangely sympathetic to Hitler. My defence is that Ellie made me buy it in Waterstones last week. Blame her. I'm glad she did though - it's not what I expected but it's actually very impressive indeed.

Plot summary: Berlin, Summer 2011. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well. Things have changed - no Eva Braun, no Nazi party, no war. Hitler barely recognises his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman.
People certainly recognise him, albeit as a flawless impersonator who refuses to break character. The unthinkable, the inevitable happens, and the ranting Hitler goes viral, becomes a YouTube star, gets his own T.V. show, and people begin to listen. But the F├╝hrer has another programme with even greater ambition - to set the country he finds a shambles back to rights. 

I was hooked on Look Who's Back by the end of the third page. Adolf Hitler wakes up in modern-day Berlin and is surprised to discover that his last order, to raze the city to the ground, wasn't carried out. By his reckoning, Germany shouldn't exist at all and he's a little annoyed that it does, actually. The novel and I just 'clicked,' and I settled down this odd but engaging book in one sitting.

I especially enjoyed Hitler's assumptions about modern life. It's fascinating how he interprets simple things like the amount of people picking up their dog's waste and the prevalence of mobile phones. He decides that modern slang and language was implemented purposefully in order to allow the Turkish workers access to a simple language suitable for their lesser intellect.

Indeed, from those Turkish pupils I was able to observe how my principles had obviously been acknowledged as correct, and later implemented as directives. I detected barely any correct syntax; it sounded more like a linguistic tangle of barbed wire, furrowed with mental grenades like the battlefield of the Somme. ... in accordance with ideas that I myself had developed and wished to implement. Admittedly, it had been intended for the Ukraine and the conquered Russian territories, but of course it was just as suitable for any other population group under German domination. And I witnessed a further technological advance: evidently the Turkish pupils had to wear tiny earplugs, to prevent them from picking up extraneous information or unnecessary knowledge.

The story never even tries to explain why he suddenly ended up in 2011, but that's alright. It's hardly the point of the story and I'd rather it didn't bother than came  up with some half-arsed, silly reasoning. What's more interesting is Hitler's own rationale about why he's been sent forward in time, which is basically that the country has gone to the dogs and the time is right for him to step forward and save it from the incompetant female Chancellor, the European Union and, of course, the Jews.

It's not pro-Hitler or anti-Hitler - it's actually as objective as something like this could be. Occasionally I started to sympathise with his lonely, befuddled character but then he would demonstrate his true views and I'd feel revolted all over again. It doesn't make apologies for his decisions, policies or views but it does explore what might have been going through his head at the time.

It's written very, very well in a slightly formal tone (as one would expect from Hitler, I suppose) but it still remains accessible. I don't think the title fits with the tone of the book but that's most likely down to a poor translation. I do think that you'd need a certain amount of history knowledge, mostly relating to World War II, as words like lebensraum and the Treaty of Versaille are bandied about. I got by just fine with GCSE History but you'd need to know something to fully appreciate Look Who's Back.

   The truth could only be understood by the man who knows the Jews, the man who knows that with them there is no left and no right, and that both sides work hand in hand in perpetuity. And only the perspicacious spirit who sees through all the disguises could recognise that in their aim to eliminate the Aryan race, nothing had changed. ... And the aim was so clear that only a fool could deny it: the Jewish hordes were planning once more to flood the Reich with their repulsive masses. But they had learned from the last war. Because they realised their inferiority, they resolved to undermine, reduce and annihilate the valour of our Volk. ...
   I was chilled to the bone with horror. And the nature of my mission was transparent.

   I must resolutely follow this path.
The knowledge and detail that have gone into this book is astounding. Mr Vermes even knows how much the chandeliers in the Reich Chancellery weigh! This isn't some silly book and I'm surprised that the review quotes on the cover mention how funny it is, because I don't see it that way at all. It's obviously not meant to be taken that seriously, but it's not comical either.

In a way, it's actually kind of terrifying. I hope somebody pretending to be Adolph Hitler and spouting his views on national television wouldn't really amuse the nation to that extent. If somebody like him devolves into just a joke, then how would we recognise it if it happened again? Would the fictional audience in the novel still be laughing if they realised it really was Hitler? Probably not. Perhaps we don't take World War II as seriously as we should.

The basic point, or the one I took away, is that Hitler was elected once, by a rational, logical society. We look back at what a tyrant he was but at the time an unhappy body of people just voted for a strong man with strong views. He was a person, not a boogeyman. These are the things we need to remember in order to prevent it ever happening again.  


I can't recommend this book highly enough.

10 comments:

  1. This is a really great review - I've seen the striking cover of this around a lot, but didn't actually know what it was about. Sounds very interesting. Your last paragraph in particular is very timely given this week's election!

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    1. I know, tell me about it. I actually read this a few weeks ago when UKIP wasn't really a thing, but now the similarities are actually vaguely terrifying.

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  2. "Occasionally I started to sympathise with his lonely, befuddled character but then he would demonstrate his true views and I'd feel revolted all over again." Huh. That's how I feel about Nigel Farage! :P

    I'm definitely glad I bought this book (and sort-of made you buy it too) and that it went down better than Longbourn. Also I hope people are reading it now and realising how ironic it is that so many of the WWII generation are voting far-right this week. Sadly they probably aren't, which is the very reason why the message of this novel may be so important. And I'm REALLY glad I bought Elie Wiesel's Night at the same time as this book, to sort-of balance out my Hitler exposure.

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    1. I'm afraid I'm not quite so generous about Nigel Farage... oh God, I just compared Hitler favourably to a modern politican. That's not good...

      I'm glad too. It's infinitely better than Longbourn and an awful lot of other books. I can barely explain why except that we just clicked and it's very, very good.

      A lot of people are tempting me into a UKIP rant here, but I refuse to BITE! I just wish people would research things before voting based on what the media tells them to.

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  3. Great review Hanna! "He was a person, not a boogeyman. These are the things we need to remember in order to prevent it ever happening again." is exactly what I keep thinking every time the Second World War or Hitler come up. He was a human, and a smart one at that. This sounds like a very interesting book.

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    1. He was very smart. He was also charismatic and oddly likeable. I mean, he was obviously a terrible man, but he clearly won over the German population enough to convince them he should be their leader.

      It's a very interesting book and I really can't recommend it enough!

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  4. I think I first put this on my wishlist because of that cover. Such a simple but effective bit of design! The more I hear about it, the more I think I do actually want to read it.

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    1. It caught our eye because of the cover too - it's really effective. I think the title lowers the tone a little, but not enough to ruin the cover or the story itself.

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  5. Oooooh, this sounds really interesting. And the cover is awesome. I'm kind of intrigued/upset by the fact that it's meant to be funny- I guess if someone was parodying Hitler and made him look ridiculous rather than disgusting, then it would be ok to laugh at him? Like at a bewildered Hitler in the modern day? I don't know... I should probably read this and see, I guess!

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  6. Books reading has many benefits, books reading improve the mental stress of a person, it also increase the knowledge of students, it play important for memory improvement of UK CV writing online, it improve the writing skills of a student for their education, it is free entertainment for educated people.

    ReplyDelete

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