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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes (translated by Jamie Bulloch) - 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Over the last few years I have read a substantial amount of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize short and longlists as well as works from the USA based Best Translated Book Award amongst others. However I must admit, this work is the most satirical, but at the same time disturbing, that I have come across from those lists. Whilst not highbrow, nor difficult to read, it poses a number of paradoxes whereby you feel uncomfortable at your own laughter.

“Look Who’s Back” introduces Adolf Hitler to Berlin in the year 2011. Our narrator is the Fuhrer himself, suddenly awake and very much alive very close to a news stand in central Berlin. He is accepted by the news vendor, who offers lodging in the stand as he sees the possibility of the Fuhrer appearing in television comedy programmes. Of course Adolf finds the new world a very different place, to start with Germany is being run by a woman, there are “Turks” everywhere and technology is simply unexplainable. For example the array of television programmes:



The picture was of a chef, finely chopping vegetables. Unbelievable! Having developed such an advanced piece of technology, all they could feature on it was a ridiculous cook. Admittedly, the Olympic Games could not take place every year, nor at every hour of the day, but surely something of greater import must be happening somewhere in Germany, or even the world! Shortly afterwards a woman joined the man and provided an admiring commentary on his knife skills. My jaw dropped. Providence had presented the German Volk with the wonderful, magnificent opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings. I was so furious that I could have hurled the entire apparatus out of the window, but then it occurred to me that there were many more buttons on the little box besides the simple on/off one. So I pressed number two. The chef vanished at one, only to be replaced by another chef, who was grandiosely discussing the differences between two varieties of turnip. This one had a floozy standing next to him too, who marvelled at the pearls of wisdom that fell from the lips of the “Turnip Head”. In irritation I pressed number three. I had not imagined the modern world would be like this.

This is a biting satire on our current world, our current beliefs and politics, the inanity through the eyes of someone who has the power to speak his mind, but also has been “missing” for 65 or so years. As Herr Hitler grasps the opportunity to again rise to power he becomes a television hit, a you-tube sensation, and his “hits” far exceeding Charlie Chaplain. The propaganda machine is again in full swing, although Adolf has some biting words for the modern day media:

3. I was reported to be dead. They said I had committed suicide. In truth I do not recall having discussed this contingency – purely theoretically – with my confidants, and my memory was definitely lacking a few hours of what had been a terribly difficult time. But, in the final analysis, I only needed to look at myself to see the facts.
Was I dead?
We all know, of course, that to make of our newspapers. The deaf man writes down what the blind man has told him, the village idiot edits it, and their colleagues in the other press houses copy it. Each story is doused afresh with the same stagnant infusion of lies, so that the “splendid” brew can then be served up to a clueless Volk. In this instance, however, I was prepared to be somewhat lenient. So rarely does Fate intervene this strikingly in its own workings that even the smartest of minds must find it difficult to comprehend, let alone the mediocre intellects serving our so-called opinion sheets.


Writing this review I would rather not be accused of “intellectual gobbledygook” along the lines of a “Potemkin-like retrospective which behind the apparent refraction of neo-fascist monostructures suggested the vehemence of an ardent please for pluralistic  or direct democratic processes” as our protagonist, Herr Hitler, is subject to when the critics come calling on his television appearances. Looks like I best be keeping this simple.

Our novel contains a gamut of scathing material from the use of leaf blowers, to mobile technology, the internet, women with broad hips, Oktoberfest, leather shorts, shopping and of course Jews. The whole time you laugh and cringe or cringe then laugh or simply laugh at the acute observations of our current society, politically incorrect? Yes? But to what end?

It is always exhilarating to watch our business leaders take fright. When the deal appears sufficiently tantalising, they hurry over with beaming smiles, scarcely able to throw enough money at you. When everything goes well, they are at the front of the queue to increase their share, suggesting that they would have borne the whole risk. But the moment something look perilous, they are the first to foist this lucrative risk onto others.

So in 2011, a television star (although everybody thinks he is being comic), a worldwide you-tube sensation, what is Hitler to do? Start his own propaganda machine of course, he can’t influence or manipulate the current media (or can he?) so what better way to fight them than to have his own website.

The current infatuation with “fifteen minutes of fame”, reality television programs, instant recognition for little input is all brought to the fore as Adolf Hitler becomes a political commentator all over again, with a multitude of followers. Even the no-name blonde starlets of the week get a lambasting.

The work is littered with wonderful snippets: “We contested the Olympic Games in 1936 along these lines and, as I have read, they recently tried to copy this overwhelming propaganda triumph in Peking, with very favourable results.”


I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the incorrectness to the bitter satire, the mirror upon a taboo subject, the manipulation of the populace and the simple unnerving belief in the character’s ideology. Is it a work that will stand the test of time? Possibly not. Is it entertaining? Of course. Will it elicit hate? Of course. Will even reading and reviewing it elicit a flurry of comments? Possibly. Should it in the 2015 IFFP? Depends on what sort of media campaign the publisher can drum up I suppose!!!


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3 comments:

1streading said...

Coincidentally, I've just posted my own review of this (as in 5 minutes before yours!). I do think it deserves to be on the long list, though I'm not sure it will stand the test of time.

Tony Messenger said...

Thanks Grant, the exact reason I marked it down. It is an enjoyable read though.

Tony Malone said...

I hate to say it, but the ending leaves it ready and waiting for a sequel... ;)