Book review: Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt

 

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The Independent Culture

You don’t know whether to be amused or horrified by this book. It casts Adolf  Hitler as a Rip van Winkle figure, who awakes on a piece of waste ground in Berlin in the summer of 2011. Around him some lads, whom he naturally assumes to be Hitler Youth, are playing football. His uniform is spattered with cake crumbs and smells of petrol and his last memory is of spending a quiet evening in his bunker with Eva, and showing her his pistol.

This curious revenant begins cautiously to explore his city. Realising that it has changed dramatically, he looks for a newspaper-kiosk, and discovers the alarming truth about his long absence. The newspaper-vendor sees a chance to make money, assuming, as does everyone else, that he is a look-alike, steeped in method acting and needing work on a comedy programme. But he is incomparably better than any other because, as we know, he is the real thing. And so his new media career begins.

His reaction to contemporary Germany is often very funny. He observes madwomen putting carefully into bags what their dogs deposit in the park, and assumes their lunacy derives from their failure dutifully to produce children for the nation. When asked by TV producers about his programme, he says it hasn’t changed since 1922. Lacking any papers, he points out that he needed no passport to enter Austria, or France. Despite the shiver prompted by such remarks, the media and the public take him to their hearts; in no time he becomes a YouTube star and is given his own office and a secretary. He can say anything he likes, he is told, though of course the Jews are not funny. He heartily agrees.

The pivotal moment comes when his nice, simple secretary rebels, saying that her grandmother, whose parents died in the camps, is appalled by the man: she can no longer work for him. The way he persuades her to carry on is a truly chilling reminder of the real Hitler’s power over the ordinary Germans, his beloved Volk.

Jamie Bulloch has produced a superb, demotic translation while Julian Rhind-Tutt’s reading is beyond marvellous, slipping between the clipped and suddenly furious voice of the Führer and the laid-back tones of the casually savvy Berliners. Both funny and frightening, this is a subtle, historical study of the commanding nature of the fanatical demagogue, as well as a savage critique of contemporary western culture. It is a powerful and important book.

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