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No Laughing Matter

By (November 1, 2015) One Comment

Look Who’s Backlookwho'sback
By Timur Vermes (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch)
MacLehose, 2014

At first, it looks like a plain white cover with a few words and an abstract shape. After a few seconds the shape and words resolve into a highly stylised yet eminently recognisable picture, or rather the absence of a picture, with just Adolf Hitler’s two visual trademarks, moustache and side-parted hair. This clever design encloses one of Germany’s best-selling novels of 2012, and has now been translated around the world.

The former German Führer wakes up on a patch of open ground in Berlin dressed in full military uniform. At first he thinks he just had a bad night, although since he’s teetotal he can’t quite imagine what could possibly have happened between his showing Eva Braun his old pistol and waking up so sore-headed and dishevelled.

The city, which he remembers as being “terribly dusty, […] a kind of field grey, with heaps of rubble and widespread damage” is now cleared, with houses freshly painted in a variety of colours. He approaches a woman with a baby and asks the way to the Reich Chancellery. “Are you on the Stefan Raab Show?” she asks. “Or Kerkeling? Harald Schmidt?” This is the book’s first reference to television and celebrity, the first hint that entertainment will trump politics. The reader can’t, of course, expect the woman to recognise him as the real, supposedly long-dead Hitler rather than an impersonator from a comedy show, but we are already so close to Hitler’s viewpoint it’s easy for us to tut along with him. Failing to recognise the twentieth century’s most famous leader! Things have definitely deteriorated during his absence.

Hitler, obviouslyVermes is good at manipulating the reader by mixing their knowledge of history with Hitler’s outrage in order to produce humorous effects without Hitler needing to say anything. The man so obsessed with racial purity spots a news kiosk where many of the newspapers are in Turkish. “[I]n spite of all our efforts, we had never been able to get [the Turk] to enter the war on the side of the Axis powers. But now it seemed as if during my absence someone — Dönitz, I imagine — had convinced the Turk to lend us his support.” The size of the Turkish population is a point of tension in Germany today; Hitler’s praise here is one of several instances where his ignorance of recent history makes him unwittingly liberal.

It’s at the kiosk, when he picks up the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that he discovers the date — 2011 — whereupon he blacks out. When he wakes up for the second time that morning, the newspaper-kiosk owner also assumes he’s an impersonator, asking if he’s filming nearby. It’s striking that the novel’s characters are generally not hostile to Hitler, taking it for granted — despite the relatively strong presence of far-right parties in Germany — that he’s in costume for entertainment’s sake rather than anything more sinister. Indeed, he even gets compliments on how realistic he is: “I’ve seen Downfall. Twice. Bruno Ganz was superb, but he’s not a patch on you. Your whole demeanour … I mean, one would almost think you were the man himself.”

Hitler admits to the kiosk owner that he’s homeless. The man ascribes this to a very recent breakup and allows him to stay in the kiosk for a few days. Soon the kiosk owner puts him in touch with television people. They want to put him on as a guest slot on a sketch comedy show hosted by the Turkish-origin Ali Gagmez, which largely trades in “farcical anecdotes about poorly educated foreigners who stuttered away in double Dutch.”

rallyspeechWhen it’s time for his first appearance, he steps out into the spotlight. He stands in the spotlight for some time, creating tension and waiting for silence, before delivering a vitriolic monologue that takes everyone by surprise. He insults people of various nationalities before his rousing ending:

“Germans today
keep their waste more thoroughly segregated
than their races,
with one single exception.
In the field of humour.
the German makes jokes about Germans
the Turk makes jokes about Turks.
The house-mouse makes jokes about the house mouse and
the field-mouse jokes about the field-mouse.
This has to change
and this will change.
From today, at 22.45,
the house-mouse will joke about the field-mouse,
the badger about the deer,
and the German about the Turk.
And so
I concur fully
with the criticism of foreigners expressed by the previous speaker.”

The audience is silenced and unsure where to look. Gagmez is outraged: Hitler was supposed to disagree, comedically, with Gagmez’s foreigner routine, but instead described him as a Turkish follower of his movement. The TV company is initially nervous, but it soon becomes clear that Germany adores Hitler’s act. After all, he is excellent at this. The Germans in the television audience experience the same dilemma as the reader: can this be an acceptable subject for comedy? Is it mocking Hitler or is it trampling on sensitivities? But they experience it only briefly, and soon the YouTube clip has gone viral. Germany loves Hitler! Hitler has changed nothing about himself and they simply can’t get enough of him.


One of my concerns early on in reading was that the newness of everything, Hitler’s surprise and misinterpretations and miscommunications, would quickly become tiresome as a comic device, but Vermes understands this and tones it down fairly quickly. Jamie Bulloch’s skilful translation does a wonderful job of conveying the verbal comedy to a non-German audience. He includes a nice amount of contemporary slang, the writing is lively and full of verve, and the jokes are handled impressively. After an episode during which Hitler watches reality TV shows with characters named Sanndi, Anndi and Manndi, he speaks to the receptionist of the hotel where the TV company is paying for him to stay about a message that came while he was out. She expresses surprise that he hasn’t got a mobile phone.

“Mobile?” I spat.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s, like, handy.”

“Like Hanndi?” I screamed in a rage. “Is this another tramp who’s gone running to court because she lost her apprenticeship?”

The German for mobile is Handy, which Bulloch moves from a noun in German to an adjective in English to preserve the homophonic joke.

AdolphHitlerSmilingslightlyThere is a truly horrible moment not quite halfway through the book, which is repeated effectively a couple more times. Hitler is discussing his new job with his boss, Frau Bellini. Although some of her colleagues feel that Hitler is cutting very close to the bone, she sees the value in taking risks and providing something new.
She has one final concern to mention before they wrap up the meeting:

“There’s just one thing I want to get straight,” Frau Bellini said, suddenly looking at me very seriously.

“What is that?”

“We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter.”

“You’re absolutely right,” I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.

Here I was catapulted out of my cozy identification — which manages, in this novel, to cohabit peacefully with ongoing disgust — with Hitler. Indeed, it sometimes feels as though the worst of the insults are reserved for the Jews. This is partly understandable, since technically there is great potential for comic misunderstanding, with the reader knowing that even though Hitler and his interlocutor appear to be agreeing, they are in reality diametrically opposed. The reader, as well as the German audience, is faced with the same question as Vermes’ readers: is it ok to laugh when a Hitler figure makes anti-Semitic jokes?

Flag_of_German_Reich_(1935–1945).svgThe idea of people unthinkingly carrying out orders also comes under scrutiny. One morning Hitler is annoyed by a man operating a leaf-blower outside his window. He is on the point of going out to vent his anger when he realises that wouldn’t be fair to the man, who is simply obeying his superior. Vermes takes this idea that not all Germans were Nazis, but were simply following orders, to a logical conclusion:

A man was following orders — it was as simple as that. Was he complaining? Was he moaning that it was a pointless task in this wind? No, he was performing his ear-splitting duty bravely and stoically. Like a loyal S.S. man. Thousands of these had completed their tasks regardless of the burden placed on them, even though they could have easily complained, “What are we to do with all these Jews? It makes no sense any more; they’re being delivered faster than we can load them into the gas chambers!”

Here’s another painful thought of Hitler’s:

“Only one thing was gratifying: German Jewry remained decimated, even after sixty years. Around 100,000 Jews were left, a fifth of the 1933 figure — public regret over this fact was moderate, which seemed to me perfectly logical, but not entirely predictable. In view of the uproar which accompanies the disappearance of German woodland, one might have imagined a sort of Semitic ‘reforestation’ to be possible, too. But to the best of my knowledge, new settlements and the nostalgic restoration of the past, especially beloved where buildings were concerned […] had failed to materialise.”

It’s episodes like these that keep the satire sharp and the reader nervous. The novel is about Hitler’s rise to celebrity in modern-day Germany. But it’s hard to tell if the joke is on Hitler, because nobody takes him seriously as a political figure, despite their adoration of him as a celebrity (there are also, of course, Germans in the book who seriously object to him as a comedian), or is the joke on the public, once again celebrating, however unwittingly, Nazi rhetoric? Or is it both at the same time, but above all a satirical look at the power of and fascination with celebrity in our era?

Throughout the novel it’s notable how willing people are to go along with what they think is a Nazi impersonator and what Hitler thinks is him gaining supporters and coming closer to regaining power. These people are not comedians, but being part of the comedian’s entourage gives them licence to behave badly. Hitler’s new secretary, Fraülein Krömeier, is more than happy to take part in the act:

“[P]lease call me ‘Mein Führer’. And I should like you to give me the appropriate greeting when you enter!”


“The Nazi salute, naturally! With the right arm outstretched.”

Her face lit up and she was on her feet at once, firing off more statements dressed up as questions. “I knew it? L.O.L! This is what you’re doing? Method acting? Do you want me to start now?”

I nodded. She dashed out of the door, closing it behind her. She knocked, and when I said, “Come in,” she strode forwards, thrust her hand into the air and screamed, “GOOD MORNING, MEIN FÜHRER!”

The hotel receptionist is also happy to collude in secret, giving Hitler Nazi salutes when there’s no danger of being seen. “It’s difficult at the moment, I know,” Hitler tells her understandingly, “But the time will come again when you, too, will be able to hold your head high and display your pride in the Fatherland.”

seigheilAs Hitler and the television company join forces to consolidate the Hitler brand, the narrative arc of the book leads perfectly to this beautifully appalling culminating moment (albeit sixty pages before the end, which tails off somewhat). When Hitler is awarded a major entertainment prize, the television company gives a party. A speech is demanded of Hitler, who obliges with a rousing rant, which ends:

“You are witnesses of the silent heroism of all of those [who]
stood up for freedom and the future
and the eternal greatness of the Greater German …
the Greater German Company Flashlight! Sieg…”

And just as in the Reichstag of old, the salute came resounding back: “Heil!”

Despite (and also because of) its sometimes cartoonish targets and slightly caricatured characters, Look Who’s Back is a funny and satisfying novel that leaves many questions uncomfortably unanswered.

JC Sutcliffe’s book reviews and writing have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the TLS, the Guardian and the Literary Review of Canada.