Book Review: Look Who’s Back

Thursday 10 March 2016 by

Look Who's Back, Timur Vermes, Jamie Bulloch, Quercus, Book, ReadingLook Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, translated by Jamie Bulloch

Published by Quercus

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 Führer has another programme with even greater ambition – to set the country he finds a shambles back to rights.

Look Who’s Back stunned and then thrilled 1.5 million German readers with its fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects. Naive yet insightful, repellent yet strangely sympathetic, the revived Hitler unquestionably has a spring in his step.

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There’s a lot to be said for translated fiction. Not only does the author have to be good, but so does the translator – they must be able to transfer the best of the book in to a new language. Thankfully, Jamie Bulloch has done an excellent job with Look Who’s Back, translating it from German.

What would Hitler think of our new, modern world? How would he react to modern technology, to the EU and globalisation? Well, wonder no more. Vermes has worked it all out for you. Hitler wakes up in the middle of a field in 2011, and is baffled to discover what Germany has become. Determined to put things to rights, Hitler soon finds himself as a YouTube star, a talk show host, and the object of fascination. Convinced he is simply an actor who refuses to break character, the public allow him a platform by which to voice his rhetoric.

This is both hilarious and uncomfortable. Told from Hitler’s perspective, it is “not a laughing matter”, but from the reader’s viewpoint, it kind of is. Except that these taboo subjects – sent up as jokes from a pantomime villain – were once very much a reality. Reading this serves to only remind us of these facts.

Comedy is not in short supply – Hitler’s reaction to computers, smartphones and the gutter press are simply brilliant (imagine anyone from history planted in the 21st Century and laughter is sure to ensue). Vermes turns the sharp edge of the pen towards modern culture as well – fashion and speech and journalism all get a dose of satire, and look all the worse for it. Nothing escapes his ire – and with fresh perspective, you start to review these things too. As it turns out, YouTube is dangerous.

But the more serious aspect of this book is all the more poignant with current political climates both here and in America. As Fräulein Krömeier’s grandmother so aptly points out – people laughed at Hitler too. What begins as something so absurd as to not be real very soon becomes a frightening reality. In Look Who’s Back, Hitler is afforded a huge platform by which to speak and, whether at first taken in jest, soon begins to gain followers. How easy it is for him to spread his propaganda when people aren’t paying attention. The slow advance of loyalty – shown by the increase in Nazi salutes and “Seig Heil” chants – is perhaps the most uncomfortable bit.

Collective memory is a long thing – but when something is shown to you as part of a joke, you simply laugh it off. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia – all these things have come under the comedian’s microscope time and time again. Yet, what if the person making that joke really thinks those things? What if, as you chuckle and brush it off, those jokes begin to manifest as something more serious? After all, isn’t that what happens in politics so often? The tendency towards “it won’t really happen” and optional blindness allows for a greater madness – and with it a greater chance of the worst happening.

British politics experienced it during last year’s general election, and American politics are experiencing it now. Fear is a funny thing – it either paralyses or motivates. Once you stop finding it funny, and begin to fear it, will you become paralysed by what it has done, or will it motivate you to return fire? As Look Who’s Back shows, it is often difficult to differentiate the joke, sometimes until it is too late.

Satire is only funny when it cuts to the quick. Vermes boldly attacks the taboos – showing that in their farce they are something more sinister. He doesn’t show Hitler as some terrifying monster – a caricature – but as a political and cold-minded person who, in his moments, shows small acts of compassion, or even recognises the farce within himself. There is never any sympathy for him, but a certain acknowledgement of someone who once proved himself so charismatic (and crazy) as to change the landscape of the world, and Vermes seeks to explore what someone with that kind of influence would have in today’s society – and how they would go about taking power again. There is no condoning of what he did; in fact whenever it crops up it is never as the punchline, but rather a critical analysis of how Hitler would go about justifying it. In comic verse, it can be funny, but read as a serious novel, it is chilling.

There were some real laugh-out-loud moments – and I enjoyed all 300 pages. It is viciously droll, smartly written, and promises something a bit different from many other novels. I would recommend this to almost anyone – it is enlightening in its oxymoronic joviality. Hitler is a parody of both himself and the modern world, and it makes Look Who’s Back one of the sharpest, cleverest novels out there.

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