Adolf Hitler wakes up on an empty plot of land in Berlin, his uniform reeking of gasoline. The year is 2011. He wonders where Eva has got to and why his orders to obliterate the entire city have been patently disobeyed.
That’s the opening of “Er ist wieder da” (“He’s Back,”) a darkly satirical, intermittently very funny novel by Timur Vermes that has topped the Spiegel fiction bestseller chart since mid-December. The publisher, Eichborn Verlag, has raised the print run to 400,000 and sold translation rights for 17 languages, including Czech and Catalan as well as English.
After establishing that he’s alive and well, Hitler catches up on the last 65 years in a newspaper kiosk whose owner takes him for a professional impersonator and introduces him to some television producers.
He gains a slot on a weekly comedy show where he spouts his unfunny views, a skit goes viral on YouTube and the rest, as they say, isn’t history at all.
Narrated by the dictator himself, “Er ist wieder da” lampoons the celebrity culture and cynicism of the modern media and entertainment industry more than Hitler. It’s a cynicism that some German critics have accused Vermes of sharing, with the taboo-bending, attention-grabbing premise of his novel.
Yet there is something intrinsically funny, if chilling, about the image of Hitler -- equipped with “The Ride of the Valkyries” as his mobile phone ringtone -- pacing the streets of modern-day Berlin and attracting puzzled sideways looks from passers-by.
He sets up a website, “Fuehrer Headquarters,” on what he insists on calling the Internetz. There he answers questions from readers such as what breed he considers to be the master-race of dogs. His biggest enemies are the neo-Nazis, who believe he is ridiculing their cause.
On a quiet evening, he mulls reviving an old hobby and designing a space port for Berlin.
He resents giving autographs. “The next day someone could paste a treaty over it and all of a sudden you’ve irreversibly handed over Transylvania to some corrupt Balkan outfit.”
There’s plenty of scope for identity humor, too, as no one believes he is the genuine Hitler. The TV company tries to get him registered as a citizen so he can get an apartment and a bank account. An executive asks why he has no passport.
“I can’t remember that anyone ever asked me for one,” Hitler replies. The puzzled producer asks him about his travels outside the European Union. “Have you never been to America?” he asks. “I fully intended to,” Hitler answers, indignant. “But things prevented me.”
It can be unsettling to view the world through the eyes of Hitler as portrayed by Vermes -- a charming, intelligent, racist warmonger.
His concern about the abortion rate is that four potential army divisions a year are being destroyed. As he watches a woman picking up her dog’s excrement with a plastic bag, he assumes she is mad and wonders idly if she has already been sterilized.
This is pitch-black humor, but in large stretches, particularly toward the end, the humor part falls short. It can feel a bit like plodding through “Mein Kampf” as the lengthy rants on war strategy and -- much worse -- his race theories, become wearying, even distressing, and decidedly unfunny.
When the humor hits the right targets, it’s priceless. Hitler’s visit to a right-wing extremist party’s headquarters in Berlin is a gem. After tearing strips off the party leader, he leaves disgusted at this “bunch of wimps.”
The English-language rights to the book have been acquired by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Publishing Plc., which plans to publish it in the U.K. in 2014. Much of the humor in the book depends on knowing figures in the German political and entertainment worlds, which could present a translation challenge.
“We are really excited about it,” said Katharina Bielenberg, the editor at MacLehose Press who gained the rights at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. Her husband Jamie Bulloch is the translator.
“It can’t be exactly the same book, but it can still be brilliantly funny,” she said. “It would be madness to translate it literally. If there are some references that really don’t work, we might have to snip judiciously.”
“Er ist wieder da” is published by Eichborn Verlag, 396 pages, price 19.33 euros.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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