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Timur Vermes: Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back; 2012)

Er ist wieder da (English translation: Look Who’s Back) is the kind of book you can’t resist because of the cover. Good graphic designers can say so much with so little: one quick look and you immediately know what, or who, this book is about. I bought this at some point last year, having eyed it on the shelves for some time. Then, the book spent several months in my TBR pile, and the other day, I decided to pick it up.

The premise of this novel would’ve been considered outrageous in Germany just a few years ago, and it did cause quite a stir: One fine day in 2011, Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up in Berlin some 66 years after his suicide. He’s wearing his uniform, and he’s in good shape. Berlin, however, is not what it used to be. It is the capital of a liberal democracy, self-complacent and cynical.

Germans are not what they used to be, either, he finds: There are too many Turks, and an entire population of people who don’t work but are generously provided for by the Government through a puzzling scheme called Hartz IV, as he finds out during his first forays into trash TV. And, no-one is much inclined to take him seriously. Speaking, as he does, in a military tone and with antiquated Nazi vocabulary, and firing his tirades at anyone who will talk to him, nobody can quite believe he is actually being serious (and of course, Hitler is dead anyway). So, people quickly decide, he must be a comedian, a particularly radical one who never leaves character. He receives a slot in a comedy show run by a comedian of Turkish descent, and takes the audience by storm. Except for Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild-Zeitung, and some old-timers who have actually suffered under his regime. But he manages to turn Bild Zeitung around, and after he is beaten up by some neo-nazis for “ridiculing” their “idol”, he becomes unstoppable…

I wasn’t expecting anything brilliant, but I also didn’t expect to have such a lukewarm reaction to this book. Really, the most radical thing about it is the premise. After that, it’s kind of predictable. There are a few interesting turns, such as the fact that the only political party Hitler sympathises with are the Greens, or that Bild, a tabloid that normally holds, shall we say, hyperconservative populist views, doesn’t take to him kindly. But other than that, I found it was mostly trying too hard. Most of the scenes weren’t that funny, even though they were meant to be. These episodes caused the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s critic to wonder to what extent portraying Hitler as a bit eccentric or detailing his reactions to modern technology wasn’t trivialising him too much. I can see where she’s coming from. His first experiences with smartphones and computers provoke a “Ha ha, just like Grandma!” type of reaction. The only really brilliant scene, in my view, was Hitler’s visit to the headquarters of the NPD, Germany’s most radically right-wing party, exposing them and their pseudo-democratic rhetoric as the hypocrites they are (but we already knew that too – it was just funny to see them criticised from the “other side” for not being “properly” right wing).

There is also an aspect in which the very circumstances of the book undermine one of it’s most important points. The reason people find “comedian” Hitler so fascinating is that he criticises German society from a viewpoint that nobody else would dare to take (so there’s always a bit of an awkward taste to his “jokes”). But on the other hand, there’s a scene where people shout “Sieg Heil” back at him in a way that is absolutely chilling. Yet, since people think he’s a comedian, wouldn’t you think they’re shouting it “ironically”? And wouldn’t that actually detract from the fact that the way he’s still able to grip the masses is beyond frightening? I’m not sure about this, but it was a thought that occurred to me as I considered that particular scene.

Some of the cultural references to current affairs are also quite funny and on-point. But most of these are very Germany-specific and if you don’t know the politicians or celebrities involved, you’d really be missing out. I suppose if you read it in translation and without socialisation into contemporary German politics/public life, you’d likely be even more disappointed. If you don’t understand all these cultural codes the book plays on, I would imagine that what remains is the hollow shell of an intriguing premise that leaves a stale taste in your mouth afterwards.

For me, the main problem was that the novel seemingly couldn’t decide whether it wanted to make a serious point or not. I mean, I suppose it does, and the idea had quite a lot of potential. But the introduction of quite a few slapstick comedy-like elements sometimes draws it dangerously close to losing track of that and thereby actually trivialising this serious point.

If you’re still intrigued, you should also read Tony’s review of Look Who’s Back. He provides the viewpoint of a non-German and makes some great observations.