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Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

We are what we pretend to be.
I'll lay my cards down from the off, so you are under no illusion about where my loyalties lie. I love Kurt Vonnegut novels, and I love Nick Nolte movies. I haven't read / seen a bad one of either. True, some have qualities in excess, some are deficient thereof; but none are so bad that I wouldn't watch or read them again. Considering the intertextual currents on which I've been adrift recently, this convergence of preferred author and actor is a pleasant one. For a starter, it's not often that one can post a picture of Nick Nolte wearing a swastika arm-band without a cease-and-desist order following shortly behind. Secondly, as I realised on re-watching the movie another time, the poignant music of Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa features throughout, which just so happens to be one of my favourite pieces of music with which to accompany fits of self-pity. Thirdly, Vonnegut manages to cast SS Obersturmbannfürher Adolf Eichmann in what must be his only comic role in literary history, albeit with the benefit of dramatic irony and only very briefly. 

So of what is it that I speak so knowingly? Vonnegut, in what is a Cervantes-esque editorial comment right at the start, claims this to be the testimony of one Howard W. Campbell Junior, only slightly edited to make it less objectionable to the reading public and then only to cut out some of the more overtly erotic scenes from one particular chapter, from his time incarcerated in a Jerusalem prison awaiting trial for war crimes, for the benefit of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals. Campbell is a war criminal, and possibly the greatest secret agent of the Second World War. An American by birth but raised in Germany for the most part, Campbell does what he needs to survive during the tumultuous years of Nazi rule, which mainly consists of doing nothing to stop them and also broadcasting the racial doctrines of the Führer's twisted dogmatism. However, unbeknownst to his Nazi Übermensches, through a cleverly disguised system of coughs and pauses, he is also broadcasting secrets of the Reich to agents of American Intelligence*. Married to a German actress of some beauty, his only loyalty, so he repeats to himself and to her, is to what he terms, and is one of the most enduring ideas of the book, Das Reich von zwei - the nation (or more accurately, kingdom) of two, paying no heed to the laws or requirements of any other nation but their own. 


All legal correspondence can be addressed
care-of Jesus to the Pentagon...
Fast forward many years, and Campbell is hiding in New York, in plain sight, as himself, his only friend a man who it turns out is a Russian intelligence agent and who eventually betrays Campbell by publicising his true identity, from whence comes the dramatic tension of the second storyline of the book and film. His wife is dead (or is she...?) and his life is meaningless, captured perfectly in both media when he leaves a police station and has for the only time in his life no good reason to move in any particular direction whatsoever (until a police officer politely threatens him). In the film, again to Arvo Pärt's music, Kurt Vonnegut makes a very small cameo appearance as a man on the street walking towards camera looking concerned, and the first time I saw it I was nearly in tears! Any way, badda bing, badda boom, things go terribly wrong, despite a last minute reprieve of sorts, one which robs him of his reason to accept the blame he finally comes to believe he deserves and which precipitates his ultimate fate. 

Thankfully I'd read the book before watching the film for the first time, so my own mental images of the characters are burnished rather than dictated by the excellent on-screen portrayals by John Goodman and Alan Arkin of Campbell's Blue Fairy Godmother (the American agent who recruits him in the first place) and George Kraft (his New York Judas). But the film is quite faithful to the novel, convincingly done given the difficult nature of the timeline, and despite the director or screenwriter incarcerating Eichmann in the cell above that of Campbell rather than the very fleeting meeting of the two that occurs in the book. If you've not read or watched either, do the book first, as always. You'll find a rare moral satire of depth and complexity, written by one of the keenest minds in recent American literature. You'll find more great lines** than at which you'd be comfortable shaking a stick. And you'll find yourself feeling more for a notorious Nazi than years of cultural backlash could have prepared you so to do. It's one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, one of my favourite 'war' movies with one of my favourite male leads - the holy triptych - and incredibly relevant for our intolerant, ignorant society and its false, hollow politicians, pretending to be what they are.

* I choose to ignore the oxymoron.
** Some of which you can read here.

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