Let’s do the timewarp… Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

The year is 2011. A disoriented Adolph Hitler awakes in an abandoned lot in Berlin. Yes, that Hitler. He doesn’t know how he got there, but in 66 years he has not aged a day. Taken in by a newsagent who marvels at his uncanny resemblance to you-know-who, right down to the authentic uniform, he has to accommodate himself to a world which is alien. But accommodation is not his strong suit. What follows is a biting commentary on our modern world and, as such, it is fitting that he finds an audience for his rehashed rhetoric through TV and You-Tube. An audience that does not always interpret his “performance” as satire. After all, in his mind he is dead serious.

2015-03-25 11.23.17As you might imagine, this premise affords Timur Vermes, the German author of Look Who’s Back, an opportunity for much humour. The newly revived Hitler faces a host of curiosities  and surprising sights. He marvels at plastic bags, satellite dishes, the computer with its “internetwork” and all the residents of “dubious Aryan heritage.”

His first encounter with a modern television set is quite funny.

“To begin with I assumed that the flat, dark plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated that it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Once a hotel maid introduces him to the secrets of the TV and its remote, he is very dismayed to find one cooking show after another. Naturally it is a waste to have such an effective tool for propaganda dedicated to such bland mediocrity. No worries though. Before long Hitler will be making his way on to the televised airwaves.

Even after more than six decades, he has not mellowed. His naivety is amusing, but his single-minded commitment to the visions, ambitions, and speeches of his past is chilling. It creates an abiding discomfort in the reader. That is, of course, the purpose, but the satire does wear a little thin over the course of the novel.

Author Timur Vermes does manage to maintain a consistent and steady voice throughout this accomplished debut. He keeps his Hitler grounded in reality, at least as he perceives it. Translator Jamie Bulloch does an excellent job of incorporating words that are most effectively kept in the original German, and in creating a realistic English slang for the younger characters. Together this all works to produce a quick, entertaining, if somewhat disturbing, read.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Look Who’s Back is well crafted and provides ample food for thought. It has a strong commercial appeal which may act in its favour for a spot on the short list.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

8 thoughts on “Let’s do the timewarp… Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes”

  1. I do like a good satire now and again, but I feel a bit uncomfortable about the premise of this one. (As you say, that’s probably the idea here.) A very fair review by the sounds of things as I’d formed the impression that the joke wears a little thin after a while. I’m kind of curious to know how it ends though…

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    1. I find that this book is sitting a little heavy in my stomach after reading which is not a bad thing. I do tend to find that I tend to be acutely aware of novels that start to feel like they are aiming for word count over content (on the Guardian’s weekly Tips, Links and Suggestions -TLS – blog where I spend some time it is the eternal “where is the editor ?” question) and this novel does start to feel that way midway through. But it is worth sticking around for the end which is interesting, satisfying but unnervingly open…

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  2. Hmm… I shouldn’t judge a book without reading it, but I must say the idea of this one makes me too uncomfortable to tackle it. Glad to hear it has a serious side amidst the humour though.

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  3. The word ‘uncomfortable’ is coming up a lot (not just here) – interesting as that thought never crossed my mind. I think that’s a case of having read too many comics rather than a general broadmindedness! However, I think a list of the world’s most uncomfortable books would be one I’d like to see.

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    1. Uncomfortable is in the eye of the beholder I suppose (and one’s tolerance for gallows humour). I guess the book does drive home the idea that we can laugh at a cartoon Hitler without a thought, but laughing at (and even daring to feel sorry for) the “real” one is crossing a line.

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  4. It sounds funny, but funny for 200 pages, not for 300+. As you say, where’s the editor?

    Unfortunately, I’m allergic to novels featuring Nazis unless they also features pulp heroes and dinosaurs that time forgot (not as common in literature as it could be).

    I do though applaud the idea of using Hitler for comedy. In a way it gives too much respect to the lunatic to always treat him seriously. If Chaplin could laugh at him, so can we. Provided we take no more than 200 pages to do it in.

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    1. This book will not be released until May 5 here in North America. I wonder how it will be received here. Judging by the number of editions of this translation released in the UK it seems to have been quite popular. This is the one book I could not obtain without special order. Fortunately it didn’t cost too much.

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