GUEST BLOG: Is Hitler a suitable subject for satire?
3rd April 2014 - Katharina Bielenberg
If you haven't heard of it yet you soon will: Timur Vermes' Look Who's Back is already a bestseller in Germany and now it's published in English by MacLehose Press, translated by Jamie Bulloch. Set in 2011, the novel imagines that Adolf Hitler has returned to Berlin and is very unhappy with the modern Germany he discovers, run by a woman and with a large immigrant population. But no one takes him seriously, believing him to be nothing more than a very convincing impersonator, although his rants lead first to his becoming a YouTube sensation and then to his own TV show.
It's presented as satire, but - not surprisingly - the book has angered almost as much as it has entertained. Katharina Bielenberg, Associate Publisher at MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus), looks at how German readers reacted to the book and explains why she decided to publish it in the UK.
Timur Vermes' Look Who's Back was the book that rocked Germany last year, with 1.5 million sales since its publication in late 2012, and sixty solid weeks in the top ten. Rights have been sold so far for translation into thirty-five languages, from Persian to Indonesian, Vietnamese to Catalan. While the German public consumed the book with gusto, critics found it more difficult to digest, arguing that aspects of it were unpalatable.
In its opening pages Adolf Hitler wakes up, in full military uniform and reeking of petrol, on an area of disused ground in modern-day Berlin. Mistaken for a brilliant impersonator, he rapidly becomes a television star and YouTube sensation, and threatens to makes waves in the political arena once again. Vermes admits to having had a huge amount of fun writing his first book, a brilliant satire that savages the superficiality of media-managed politics and our obsession with celebrity, but the novel has a serious message too.
It goes without saying that Germany still has a complicated and uncomfortable relationship with its past. Even at this remove from the Second World War, it is a nation trying to build a good future in spite of a very rotten period in its history. Currently a debate rages over whether Mein Kampf should be allowed to enter the public domain, now that its author has been dead for almost seventy years and the copyright term will end. Vermes' own contribution to the discussion is unequivocal: Does the government trust its people or does it not? If, after 70 years, the answer is no, does that not mean that something has gone wrong in the educational process? And if that is the case, should this not be admitted to, and something be done about it?
Bold and humorous, Vermes' book heralds a new approach to what in German is termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung ('coming to terms with the past'). More than just a clever comedy, Look Who's Back is layered and complex; its first-person narrative produces confused, uncomfortable reactions in the reader, who can only marvel at how this Hitler outwits politicians, journalists and celebrities with his twisted logic. With our long tradition of satire, and an uncanny fascination with the Nazi era, this bold and ground-breaking German import is certain to strike a chord with an English-language readership.