I rarely look at the bestseller lists, but I did just now, and look! Amidst the crime and grime, number twelve - speaking of German comedians - is Timur Vermes' Er ist wieder da. A rare case of a book I enjoyed actually appealing to other people. It's also a comeback of sorts for publishers Eichborn, whose bluebottle has risen from the ashes of bankruptcy under new management. They've made a very good video to promote the book. Here's a quick rehash of what I wrote about the satirical novel for New Books in German - before I handed the book on to a friend, who absolutely loved it. (Apologies for formatting issues in advance!)
Hitler wakes up on an empty lot in Berlin, in the spring of 2011, with a bit of a headache. He can’t remember anything after showing Eva Braun his pistol in the bunker, so he’s pretty confused to find Berlin suddenly intact and not overrun with Russian soldiers. He wanders the streets until a newsagent takes pity on him and lets him sleep in his kiosk. Obviously, people recognize him but they all think he’s playing a role – as a comedian. And in fact a third-rate production company spots him at the kiosk and signs him up, thrilled by his unintentionally hilarious monologues and the way he never slips out of character while ad-libbing.
Hitler rises through the ranks of the German comedy scene and turns into a Youtube phenomenon. But the all-powerful BILD newspaper is suspicious – and pronounces Hitler the unwitting comedian officially out of order. Hitler himself rather admires the way the paper calls a spade a spade, but manages to trick the journalists with a spot of emotional blackmail until he finally has BILD’s full ingratiating support.
From then on, the only way is up. Hitler takes to the streets and interviews innocent passers-by on topical subjects, whipping them up into a fury over dog poo on the pavement or speeding drivers. All of which makes for great TV. Out filming on location, he comes across the NPD’s headquarters in Köpenick. Hitler is of course horrified by the Neonazis’ lack of conviction and commitment to the cause and showers the new party leader with insults.
The novel is narrated in the first person by the reawakened Adolf Hitler himself. So we get interior monologues looking back on historical incidents and characters, spontaneous speeches and a great deal of confusion over the details of modern-day life – women who collect up dog poo in small plastic bags, Turkish people running businesses, and why on earth do people want to drink dry white wine and eat so much meat? All in Hitleresque language based on close study of speeches, Mein Kampf and recorded private discussions, which was actually fun to translate - in a weird way - when I was asked to do a short sample.
I’ve certainly never read anything like it before. It really is funny – what would Hitler make of modern-day life, what innovations would he appreciate and what would he condemn? And how would people react to him? It reminded me of some of those great juvenile American comedies along the lines of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (remember that one?), in which historical figures are astounded by the present day. Only it’s Hitler, which Eichborn rightly point out is a touchy subject. Yet there's a long history of Hitler parodies, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks to Walter Moers and Dani Levy, and even British antifascist magazine Searchlight has used humour in its work. If Prince Harry and Aidan Burley are anything to go by, Hitler is widely considered both funny and wrong – which is something the novel stresses throughout. Plus, Vermes brings in a great deal of biting critique of today's media and politics - which is what my friend liked best about the novel.
The modern-day Adolf joke would wear a bit thin over 250 pages, though, if it weren’t for the rather clever psychological observations of all the nonsense people are prepared to get up to when faced with a “fake” Adolf Hitler. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book, which gave it an intelligent edge. Rights have sold to Spain, Norway and Italy - fans of edgy humour should keep their fingers crossed for a UK/US publisher. My alternative title/subtitle: Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mister Hitler?