Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

Across the front cover of Look Who’s Back is an endorsement from the Independent. “Be warned. This book is funny. Very funny.”

Let me tell you – it’s not.

Well, maybe it is. Humour is subjective, after all – I guess one could say that although it’s not funny-haha, or funny-peculiar, it is at least…. I don’t know. Funny-horrifying?

I can tell you I didn’t laugh. Perhaps, looking at the strikingly recognisable cover art, that makes sense.

Look Who’s Back starts from the premise that Adolf Hitler somehow wakes up alive and well in Berlin in 2011. Not much time is wasted on the how or why of this miraculous(?) occurrence – the fictional Hitler himself simply takes a little time to accept his new reality, and then gets on with things, and the narrative behaves the same way; the somehow-still-alive dictator quickly becomes a sensation, lauded as a brilliant satirist, with his own TV show, going viral on YouTube, becoming the talk of the town etc etc.

I didn’t laugh. It wasn’t funny.

It was a gripping and engaging read, though. I read it for my office book club, and even before our meeting there have been a few discussions – reactions are spilling out of me and my colleagues with some heavily divided opinions; one person at least has put the book to one side in frustration and disgust, a few have read avidly, almost unable to put it down. Personally, I found it to be a very readable and well-written (and well-translated) narrative. Although the content is – quite frankly – terrifying, the story itself is, as I say, engaging and easy to read. Apart from the self-consciousness of carrying a book with Hitler’s face on it, that is. I definitely felt awkward reading this on the tube.

I’m still slightly reeling as I write this, to be honest, so it may not be the most coherent of posts. As they flow from my brain to the keyboard, then, a few thoughts:

It is extremely disconcerting to find oneself empathising with (albeit a fictional version of) Hitler. The narrative is written from his point of view, and while none of what the main character says is softened from the old speeches, we the reader see these awful words juxtaposed with a man forming relationships with those around him; see that famous charisma; see his (if you like) humanity. Although this is not an enjoyable or comfortable experience, there is a part of me that does think it’s important. As I wrote about in reaction to Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things (where similarly, we as readers are confronted with the humanity of a modern day white supremacist), it is both the mark of a clever author, and an important element of defeating that kind of hatred to be able to do so.

That might not make sense, but bear with me. When extremists (or those with extremist views) are demonised, or turned into monsters – something less than or other than human – several things happen. Firstly, the collusion of society or individuals is swept under the rug. We can say – but it’s not us, it’s them – they’re the monster! – and conveniently forget (in the case of Hitler, for example) that this ‘monster’ was overwhelmingly supported and voted into power. All responsibility is pushed onto the ‘monster’, which makes everyone else feel less guilty. This may be fine, except that this removes a significant barrier to the same things happening again with a different monster. Right? If we separate the extremist from humanity, humanity has no impetus to learn from our bad choices.

Secondly, othering extremism creates the conditions for extremism. By ostracising and dehumanising the views – the anger, the hurt, the need, the want, the very human emotions and reactions which contribute to someone developing extreme views and actions – we create an environment where these views can’t be aired. Which ought to be a good thing, of course – except that if the views can’t be aired, they can’t be answered or addressed, and if they can’t be answered or addressed, they continue, and if they continue, they continue underground, out of sight, and if they continue out of sight, they grow in strength and volume and number until they have enough whallop to win an election.

And if these -surprise-election-winning-extreme-views are, in the future, dehumanised again… well, then the whole cycle starts over. People don’t recognise the contributing factors, because there’s such a vast gap between ordinary human beings and the monster who did those awful, unspeakable things… allowing us to forget entirely from our collective consciousness that it was not a monster who did these unspeakable things, but a human being.

Which is infinitely worse.

Here are some promises I have made myself, or renewed in myself, after reading Look Who’s Back. I’m not going to keep these perfectly, but I am going to try my utmost, and keep trying every day. If you can, I urge you to do the same.

  • I will engage in conversation – not just debate, but actual genuine conversation with actual human engagement, and two-way listening – with those who hold different views from mine.
  • I will – as far as I am able – answer hatred with love, not more hatred. I will endeavour to show compassion and empathy to all those around me, even when I think they’re wrong, or think they are leading with hate and anger.
  • I will not allow myself to be complicit in hate-filled opinions or ‘humour’. When I see or hear bigotry, I will challenge it – however I am able – just not with silence.
  • I will try to use my privilege for the good of others. More on this promise in this post.
  • I will VOTE. I will exercise my democratic right as wisely as I am able, with research and the courage of my convictions. I will not fall back on the easy bitterness of ‘But it won’t make a difference’ – even if I think it won’t.

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P.s. The film adaptation is on Netflix in the UK. It’s in German with English subtitles, and again, I didn’t laugh, I cried.  The book is better, IMO, but if you prefer to watch than read, you can.

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