It is summer 2011 and Adolf Hitler has returned! In Timur Vermes’ latest novel, Look Who’s Back, the notorious dictator finds himself waking up in mysteriously good health in 21st Century Berlin. As he comes to terms with the modern world, Hitler gains a great deal of popularity among the German people, who believe him to be an impersonator. Before long, he becomes a celebrity, as he bids to return himself and Germany to its former “glory”.
Having been a ghost-writer since 2007, Vermes writes this book as if he himself was Hitler, writing in a journal or memoir. By following the events of the book from Hitler’s perspective, Vermes gives a sense of character through the stylisation of language and mannerisms. The writing style and vocabulary, even when using dialogue, conveys the sense that this character is out of place in a modern context: “’Am I to deny my life, my work, my Volk? You cannot ask that of me… I will go on wearing this uniform until the last drop of blood has been spilled’”.
The idea of Hitler being alive in the 21st Century is a potentially amusing, although also rather alarming, concept and Vermes’ writing is genuinely humorous. The comedy lies in Hitler’s interaction with modern technology and the fact that he cannot actually convince anyone that he is the real Hitler. As Hitler spends time in Berlin he makes various observations regarding the changes that have taken place since his death at the end of World War Two. These observations are naturally political and militaristic. Vermes portrays Hitler as obsessed with the Volk and the Reich. Countless times we read how the Fatherland has become spoiled and contaminated with “Jewery” and how it must again be purified for the good of the German Volk.
Another aspect of Hitler’s character which Vermes tries to convey is his skill as an orator. By breaking up the written structure of his speeches, Vermes invites us to read as if Hitler was addressing an audience. This works well in that it creates a powerful sense of oration, though it is difficult to capture the same sort of energy which might be contained in an actual speech:
’My fellow Germans!
have just seen
in numerous routines,
is perfectly true…’
Amongst the comedy and the critique on modern society there was just one moment which was truly powerful and thought provoking. This moment is when Hitler is made to confront the reality of his reign. At this point, the dictator is portrayed as someone who truly believes that everything he did was right – there is no remorse for the deaths of so many people. Still he is forced to stop and realise that his actions still resonate with people today: “I stood there, somewhat at a loss. Her outburst had taken me quite by surprise”. Although this moment is short-lived, it is perhaps the most memorable moment in the novel.
Vermes does not explain how Hitler has managed to miraculously become reborn and travel forwards in time; the last thing Hitler remembers is sitting with his wife Eva on a sofa. Vermes has deliberately excluded any explanation for this or to have even speculated how this could have happened. Therefore, we are given an abrupt, straight-to-the-point novel which moves along at a relatively fast pace with an equally abrupt and almost too conveniently resolved conclusion.
Following one particular incident, there is an expectation that we are about to be hit with the disappointing and clichéd ending that “he woke up and it had all been a dream”. However, this is not the case. Nevertheless, the events following this incident conclude the novel rather disappointingly. Yet this should not be allowed to detract from what is an imaginative and entertaining work.
Hamzah M. Hussain