The inside front and back covers of the paperback edition of this novel carry a large number of positive comments from reviewers (as well as a few unfunny imaginary comments form Stalin, Churchill, and bizarrely, Napoleon) including one from the Daily Express which called the novel “laugh-out-loud-funny”. The hyphens suggest this is not to be taken too literally, although how something can be “kind of” laugh out loud but not literally laugh out loud I don’t know. But it wasn’t. It just wasn’t funny. It wasn’t particularly offensive either, which I suspect the author was aiming for at times.
The premise is simply – Hitler comes back from the dead, and tries to make sense of modern Germany. Naturally the contrast between Berlin 1945 and 2015ish is striking, and where much of the attempts at humour derive. The German nation has a reputation – in the UK at least – as being humourless, and the clumsiness of this book underlines that stereotype. There is no attempt to explain this resurrection – we are just invited to accept it as fact, or rather to suspend our belief. The satire is heavy handed, with Hitler’s commentary on 21st century German politics being fairly predictable to say the least. Some of the jokes simply don’t translate, depending as they do on a knowledge of German contemporary culture. After the premise is quickly established I wondered how the author would treat the issue of the holocaust. Obviously a resurrected Hitler would not have any reservations about the murder of six million Jews, and putting these thoughts in his mouth without sufficient challenge would be simply sick. Vermes doesn’t duck this issue – Hitler’s secretary tries to resign because her grandmother’s family was murdered but he quickly reconciles her to the idea of continuing to work for him by charming her grandmother into accepting his goodwill. The Hitler character, through who’s eyes the novel is written, has not mellowed during his hibernation, but is portrayed as human, reasonably quick witted, and while uncompromising still able to accommodate the changes he sees in the world. He is no monster, and persuasively argues that a) he was elected through a fair and open democratic process, and that b) therefore his crimes, not that he sees them in this way, are those of the German people.
This is an uncomfortable book, that has been translated well but from which you rarely escape the knowledge that it is in translation. I was hoping that the author would attempt to rationalise the time travelling and resurrection aspects of the story, but he doesn’t bother. He also winds the novel up suddenly, giving every appearance of tiring of his material and characters. It’s an interesting premise, but that’s not enough to sustain this novel over 350 pages. If anything it made we want to read a serious biography of Hitler, which I suppose is not a bad result. But as for looking at modern Germany in a new light – sadly, no.