Saturday, March 28, 2020

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann

Pantheon, 2020
originally published 2017
translated by Ross Benjamin
339 pp


Tyll begins in a town where "the war had not yet come" and where the people "prayed often" to keep it away.  The townspeople stopped what they were doing at the arrival of  Tyll Ulenspiegel, whom they recognized by his "pied jerkin ... battered hood and ... calfskin cloak."  Ignoring the calls of the cows who needed milking,  they watch as Tyll and his small retinue put on a play and  dance; Tyll sings a number of ballads and then walks a tightrope.  As he "stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips," the crowd looking up at him
"understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people."
Ulenspiegel moves on, his coffers full of their coins, but not before leaving the people in a battle that began with shoes, and not before asking young Martha to join them, an offer she declines.   But "a good year later," the war did arrive;  the soldiers decimated the town, leaving behind only three survivors.  As she hears the beams of the roof of her burning house "splintering,"  young Martha realizes (among other things)  that 
 "Tyll Ulenspiegel was now perhaps the only person who would remember our faces and would know that we had existed."
Tyll represents a freedom that most regular people at this time do not have nor will ever obtain; rejecting his proscribed lot in life is something that began during his childhood after his father, the local miller and student of alchemy, magic, and herbs was arrested, tortured, and executed by Jesuits for witchcraft.  When he and a young girl he's convinced to go with him join up with a traveling entertainer, he begins to hone not only his tightrope and singing skills, but also his ability to survive under the most adverse conditions.  He is the Fool who is not a fool, carrying a bag of tricks which include among other things a talent for mockery and a fearlessness when speaking to power.

From the start we are put directly into the midst of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) -- the mercifully-short version of which you can read about here;  the many stories that follow trace Tyll Ulenspiegel's life before and during this period.    It was a war which, as one character notes,
"has been going on so long that most people alive have never seen peace. That only the old can still remember peace."
However, the author cleverly sidesteps presenting Tyll as a typical work of historical fiction by not following a straightforward, chronological narrative.  He does not in any way ignore the horrors suffered by people during the war,  but while he does this, he has also embedded the story of Tyll Ulenspiegel within these chapters, having him interact with various historical figures and others with whom he crosses paths, most all of whom are connected in some way.  Since it is not your average plot-based narrative, you have to put some work into piecing things together, but it is well worth the time and effort. 

I found myself engaged immediately, often moving between laughing and trying to force down the lump in my throat, but always, always enthralled.  Seriously recommended for very patient readers.  I loved this book.

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