Modern times through the eyes of a monster
CHICAGO — On a quiet Sunday morning recently, my family and I sat having breakfast when one of my sons asked whether their dad and I had been having an argument the night before.
I chuckled and reassured them that they had heard raucous laughter.
“What was that funny?” my son asked.
I explained that I had asked my husband, lying beside me in a contemplative mood, what he was thinking about and without hesitation he said, “Hitler.”
We’d had a good pre-bedtime laugh because, as history buffs, we enjoy wondering what figures from the past would make of this insane world we live in.
Now, in a new translation by Jamie Bulloch, we get to experience this through the eyes of a fictitious Hitler in “Look Who’s Back,” a hilarious novel by German author Timur Vermes.
Since its publication in 2012, the book has sold about 2 million copies in Germany, topping best-seller lists for 20 weeks, and been translated into 42 languages, including Hebrew, proving that my husband and I aren’t the only two weirdos in the world who think about Adolf Hitler, and wonder what his blog or Instagram account might look like. Vermes takes us there.
The setup is simple: Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground in Berlin in the summer of 2011, in full military dress uniform not knowing what in the world has happened to him.
As would befit the absurdity of our real world — where someone can make a 15-second video on the social media network Vine and be skyrocketed to international fame by adoring admirers in a matter of weeks — Hitler is presumed to be an impersonator who never breaks character.
A TV producer discovers him and boom. Next thing you know, Hitler has a recurring bit on a popular late-night comedy show, a thriving YouTube presence and website (he wonders whether he should design his own font for the site: “Logically … I should invent the ideal typeface for a national movement. Then it occurred to me that before long graphic designers in printers’ workshops would be discussing whether to set a text in ‘Hitler Black,’ and I scrapped the idea.”).
The appeal of the story is our own reaction to a monster’s view of how we live today. And being chilled by our own empathy with his disgust toward the media, politicians, government and, of course, technology.
“The telephone has to be a telephone, a calendar, a camera and everything else besides. This is dangerous nonsense, the only possible consequence of which is that thousands of our young people will be mown down on the roads because they cannot stop staring into their screens,” Hitler says.
The reporting on “Look Who’s Back” has barely mentioned any real outrage about Vermes’ satire, which ultimately sees Hitler rising to success and becoming a thought-leader and an enemy of the current status quo. This is shocking in an environment where trigger warnings are making their way into nearly every aspect of our waking lives lest material of any kind make anyone feel “unsafe” — and social media platforms allow crowds to attack anyone who commits the sin of political incorrectness.
But in an interview with The New York Times, Magnus Brechtken, the deputy director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, said he sees this book as one of the most successful examples of satire that undermines and ridicules Hitler.
It sure does. And we may love it because it undermines and ridicules us, too.
The devoted following that Vermes’ Hitler quickly amasses in the book is not at all because of people’s acceptance of his attitude toward Jews, foreigners or anyone else he deemed inferior.
It is a direct result of this character’s unflinching honesty about his beliefs, the responsibility he takes for his actions and his ironclad refusal to tell people — fans and detractors alike — only what they want to hear.
Vermes’ book reminds us of our disgust for celebrity worship of our existing (or potential) leaders that is based on their looks, bank accounts or their ability to “win” the vapid 24-hour news cycle with a catchy tweet, or to infiltrate your Facebook feed with a choice nugget about a political opponent.
Vermes could have made the star of this book anyone from history. He’s really telling us about ourselves.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
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