Il est de retour by Timur Vermes
This is another one of those books that is not for everybody - it takes a certain type of author to write a comedy about Adolf Hitler coming back from the dead and becoming an incredibly successful TV personality. The central character of Hitler in this book is, also, a not-at-all watered-down Adolf Hitler: he is just as unpalatable a person as I imagine the real one was.
However, the book definitely delivers on its promise - it is cuttingly sharp, incredibly witty, laugh-out-loud funny in many parts, and the sheer audacity of Vermes in even coming up with this story and being able to sell it. And while I am always weary of judging the quality of original writing when I'm reading a translation, the writing in this book is quite good - crisp, concise, easy to follow and to the point, with a deft understanding and an expert wielding of irony, sarcasm and self-deprecation. Where the book does fall a bit flat is in the non-central characters, and the pacing of the story itself.
Ultimately, the insanely wacky premise of this book works because of the paradox at the heart of most sociopolitical systems today: the confidence we all have that we won't get another Adolf Hitler, but the deep sense of unease that we feel when seeing far-right, populist politics not only acquiring senses of legitimacy and momentum, but even winning seats in different European legislatures and the executive head-of-government roles in many countries. And it is incredibly jarring, and certainly eye-opening in a sense, to discover (and to learn about ourselves, maybe) that Hitler spouting his nonsense in 2011 is accepted, and promoted, and celebrated because of how laughably horrific it all is. And it certainly is hilarious - there are chunks of the book where I was laughing out loud, and the wit is sharp and precise and on point throughout all 400 pages. A complex, fine-tuned, pitch-perfect sense of irony diffuses across the entire novel, and lends every line of dialogue and every Hitler monologue a sense of paradoxical, almost painful sense of self-awareness that works incredibly well. A joke never misses its landing or doesn't land its punch. The writing is also excellent - it's so precise and concise and clear that the long paragraphs never feel overwhelming or difficult to parse, and it's a book that flies by in the blink of an eye even as it is a topic that makes you think.
I did end up docking points because of two obvious faults with the novel itself, and that started to impact the quality of the story as it wore on. The supporting characters are massively underdeveloped, to the point where two of them were honestly interchangeable. Maybe this was an author choice, since the novel is told from the point of view of Hitler himself and he is, I suppose, rather self-centered, but the fact that the characters that surrounded him felt like cardboard cut-outs who fell, hook line and sinker, for Hitler's shtick without ever asking an intelligent or pertinent question, took away from the enjoyment of the novel for me. You have to do a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to fall for the fact that Hitler just happened to lie in a comatose state without aging for sixty-six years, and fine, the novel carries that successfully - but that everyone just buys that this Hitler is an uncannily similar Hitler impersonation without ever asking anything just doesn't click.
The pacing is also a bit off - there's a lot of build-up and then the big climax happens only ten pages before the novel ends, so I felt a bit like I was left with my hunger, and expecting more of an actual story than the narrative exposition that we got.
All told, though, this was an enjoyable, good book that made me laugh and think in equal measures. It's not for everyone - if you're not sold on the premise you won't enjoy it, but if the concept of the book is something that intrigues you or you've got a dark, twisty, slightly morbid sense of humor, then this is probably for you.
Right, I'm off to check on my sourdough starter - but let me know if you're adding this to your list, or if you've already read it and have thoughts you want to share!
Happy reading (and stay home),