Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

It’s a setup as bold as it is absurd: Adolf Hitler wakes up inexplicably in 2011 Berlin. Things have changed – there’s no Nazi party, no bombings; the modern Germany is liberal, multicultural and run by a woman. Hitler is quickly recognised, of course – though as an especially dedicated impersonator, whose uncanny similarity and spirited diatribes are the perfect parody of the Führer himself. Thrust into the spotlight by a media hungry for shock value, Hitler’s rants against the modern world become a YouTube sensation, and it’s not long before people start listening to what he has to say.

For his first novel, Timur Vermes has set himself a fiendishly difficult task in choosing the Nazi leader as protagonist. However, Look Who’s Back, wildly successful in its original German, manages to deliver both a realistic portrayal of the Nazi leader and an engaging protagonist. The revived Hitler shouts at iPhones and rails against leaf blowers, but this is no fish-out-of-water slapstick comedy. Vermes (and translator Jamie Bulloch) does not excuse or downplay the dictator’s political beliefs, his obsession with race, erratic temper or brutal survival-of-the-fittest attitude, yet presents a cunning, charismatic and decidedly sane character.

The true success of Vermes’s dark satire is in the discomfort this perspective causes: by forcing the reader to see the world through Hitler’s eyes, we confront the reality that the horrors of World War II were carried out not by a monster, but by a man – one who knew exactly what he was doing, and who enjoyed an extended period of popular support. By inserting the dictator into today’s cynical and media-soaked world, Look Who’s Back exposes the uncomfortably familiar ways in which ideas can spread and take hold, and how easily a populace can be led.

Alan Vaarwerk