Friday, 30 May 2014

Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

Ich bin ein naughty boy...
I recall chortling along at the age of fifteen or so to those gadabouts with their silly walks and dead Nordic psittacines when, in a small boarding house in Minehead, Somerset, Bimmler, Ron Vibbentrop and one Mr Hilter sat planning a little hike to Bideford but are gently chided by the newcomers that the map they have is of Stalingrad. "Not much fun in Stalingrad," Mr Hilter agrees with the landlady through gritted teeth.

To my adolescent mind, it was comedy gold, the idea that 'Mein Dickie Old Chum' was billeted in a B&B whilst plotting his return to power via the North Minehead bye-elections, surrounded by typical holidaying bourgeois couples with the political nous of a wiener schnitzel. 

Fast forward a mere forty five years* and along comes Timur Vermes** and his satire. Now, I don't have enough knowledge of the burgeoning (or otherwise) German satire scene to confidently place this work into context. Is there really a battery of Hitler impersonators roaming the fringes of German comedy shows? I guess I could find out but... I have to put lard on the cat's boil. Were the German book-buying public really "...stunned and then thrilled... [by the book's] fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects"? I'll take MacLehose Press' word for it. If we assume the first is correct, shouldn't the second be particularly unlikely? Like I said, I'll not question the publisher's honesty. Whatever your conclusions, what is clearly true is that given the success of the book, the writerly God-head was heavily pregnant with the idea of a novel from Hitler's point of view. 

Woken from a dreamless sleep and with no recollection of the means by which his situation was precipitated Hitler finds himself not dead in his bunker, but rather in a vacant lot in Berlin, in the year 2011, in military dress and all alone. Remarkably, but key to the success of such a Harry Turtledove-esque 'what if' plot device, his appearance goes unremarked, due to the apparent fashion for Hitler impersonators. This is Hitler's foothold on the new century and he quickly carves open the market in satire by exploiting the public's staunch belief that no-one would ever really dare to truly sympathise with Hitler, and that they're laughing at him, not with him, while at every chance explaining to the reader how his excruciating mental preparation and training help him to keep the public eating out of his hands.

In many ways, it's a fairly broad satire of somewhat tired archetypes - the stat-obsessed media exec, the honest news agent, the chameleonic politician, the sweaty, repugnant modern neo-fascists; in many passages, our peculiarly avuncular protagonist expounds at sometimes extreme length any number of topics with mixed success - his theories on the most patriotic dog breeds is an entertaining idea but is unconvincingly delivered - and one reader at least shared my opinion that it just went on too long. But for all that, it did make me titter; I was gently amused in several places by what should really have been a very silly and  unlikely novel. So for this reason if for none other*** Vermes' should be applauded for his efforts, and his efforts should be recognised by a broad readership. Do pick up a copy. Schnell!



"Cool it, Fürher cat!"

* I should point out this is forty five years from first broadcast, not from when I was fifteen years old. These are laughter lines.
** Vermes would have been approximately two when episode 12 of season one of Monty Python's Flying Circus was first aired in the UK. It makes you wonder what took him so long to catch on.
*** Of course there is the permanent underlying reason that references to Godwin's Law and Hitler in general make my wife crazy.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Story of the Greeks by H. A. Guerber

To be fair to this e-book, it probably deserves a mini mention but not much more. Typical of the era, and of the author* these are dangerously sanitised versions of much loved and much more gruesome and explicit tales. Still, they're quite entertaining for a three year old and there's lots of them, so as they're stored electronically on the branded e-reading device of choice, I can take them camping rather than lug a suitcase of children's books with me (and lessening the space available for the lugging of large quantities of alcohol, for once he's gone to sleep).

* I also read Myths of the Norsemen by this author and it exhibits all of the same typical Victorian values in so-called educational literature for children.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

These fellas really like 
the Manchester Ship Canal...
Just what the hell am I doing, firstly listening to the literary opinions of a bus-owning former DJ who lives in Hull, and secondly buying books written by poets not filled with poetry but rather wistful elegies to the abandoned margins of the urban landscape? 

Ten points to the ghost at the back who shouted "drinking!"

It may have been indirectly drink-related: I might have been planning to drink and read and get misty-eyed and soulful. It may have been directly drink-related: it's possible I'd been sneaking Bombay Sapphire from Mrs MightyBuch's supplies, leading to guilty internet purchases of e-books I would then never read. It may have had nothing to do with drink, being rather a part of a larger movement towards appreciating the opinions of friends, sharing interests instead of deriding them, seeing what they see and feeling more engaged and compassionate and becoming a better friend as a result, a desire fuelled by disengagement and disenfranchisement brought about by the slow attrition of dreams and leakage of erstwhile potential via the quotidian pressures of life and of the perfidious self.

Ten more points to the phantom heckler with more shouts of "drinking!"

No, no drink was involved, and the truth, whilst irritatingly verbose to deflect attention from the deeper message therein, lies in the third way. I'm looking to improve myself (!) reading something beautifully written, intellectually stimulating and also piquant with nostalgia, articulating dimly remembered childhood experiences in prose which I am simply not able to use. Of course, this drive, like all drives to self improvement, didn't last very long - reference my most recent reading choices following this; more mental chewing gum and rampant escapism - but it lasted through a particularly enjoyable camping trip where reading this was not only hugely enhanced by liberal application of Guinness and Pembrokeshire artisan beers but which also when read aloud helped put my three year old to sleep when all he wanted to do was run around shouting 'bum' in his undercrackers.

The premise, in case you're still reading, is, clumsily put, this: that on the edges of our cities and towns are spaces where different rules apply, places through which you travel but rarely stop to visit, places inhabited by the ghosts of childhood imagination, curious beauty, random and incongruous landscapes. As denizens of Lancashire, lots of their experiences are centred on the north east of England, but the descriptions are instantly recognisable, indicative of the ubiquitousness of these 'edge lands', and they take the time, as advised by W. H. Davies, Super-tramp, to stop and stare, but also to record. And the record is important because, like poetry, what they capture is elusive, ephemeral, inconstant. It is always shifting, altering subtly and not-so-subtly, and for two poets to observe and reflect on it all is in retrospect a perfectly logical action. Of course, being as I am easily influenced by anything even slightly persuasive, you might wish to make up your own minds. Well, take my advice (and that of the Nottingham Forest supporting mouthpiece), and do make up your own mind. These two chaps could make you love the Manchester Ship Canal as much as they do.