Book review: Look Who's Back, by Timur Vermes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm

Look Who's Back
by Timur Vermes
MacLehose Press
2 stars

David Bartram

It is certainly one of the more bizarre premises in recent contemporary fiction. It's Berlin in the year 2011, and Adolf Hitler wakes to find himself lying on a floor, initially unaware that he was somehow brought back to life and sent several decades forward in time.

After finding his bearings, he soon makes a friend at a nearby newspaper kiosk and before long is starring on television, with much of Germany enthralled by what they believe is a comedy actor portraying the Führer.

Timur Vermes' satire of modern German society has been translated into English after gaining huge success in his homeland, where the novel has sold more than one million copies.

Of course, the obvious question is whether Hitler is appropriate fodder for a comic novel.

Vermes' Hitler isn't a particularly dislikeable figure, and the reader is directed to almost pity him. His racist rants are so out of context that they come across as irrelevant rather than offensive. On other occasions, the dictator is witty and rather charming.

Vermes has argued that such a portrayal is important, and that writing Hitler off as a unique monster is to blind ourselves to the social and political failings that could put a similar figure in power again.

Yet Look Who's Back neither brings home the reality of the Nazi nightmare nor makes any substantial comment on Europe's current problems, particularly those with parallels in the 1930s: rising nationalism, economic inequality and the scapegoating of immigrant minorities.

Instead it is a rather tedious affair, content to rely on silly misunderstandings and easy one-liners for cheap laughs.

The plot drifts along without going anywhere particularly interesting. Hitler praises the internet, wishing he had such a tool in the 1940s; he is surprised Germany is now led by a woman; he plays a long game of Minesweeper, mistaking it for a military naval exercise.

The book appears to be more reliant on the initial shock of the concept; it doubles down on the cover, the title forming Hitler's infamous moustache underneath the side-parted hair. Upon initial release in Germany it was priced at €19.33, a reference to the year Hitler came to power.

But when it gets down to it, Look Who's Back is barely the radical piece of work promised.

This bumbling, hapless and at times likeable version of Hitler is supposed to remind us of how easy it was for ordinary people to fall under his spell. It isn't that far from the way he was portrayed by many Allied propagandists 70 years ago.

Perhaps we can only conclude that the book speaks more directly to a German audience. But even with translations in progress for releases in 35 countries, Hitler's return seems unlikely to shake the world this time around.