Monday, November 28, 2016

Did Vonnegut foresee Donald Trump's false-idol campaign way back in 1961?

I devoured about a dozen Kurt Vonnegut books when I was a teenager, and they were worldview forming towards my lifelong love of science fiction, political commentary, international relations, and just plain sociology.

Sirens of Titan, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Slapstick are just a few of the best books ever written, and two of Vonnegut's books, Welcome to the Monkey House and Breakfast of Champions, even made my all-time top 60 novels list. And don't forget Harrison Bergeron, easily one of the greatest short stories, period.

Somehow I had missed his 1961 novel Mother Night, written in a very fertile part of his early career, and it stands up very well amongst both his greatest works as well as the test of time.

The layered tale is all about American Howard W. Campbell Jr., who begins the story from an Israeli prison and ends it there as well. He is recruited to be a Nazi spy and goes on to great infamy as a major radio voice in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine. Because he is a spy, he is able to escape the post-war Nazi trials and live the rest of his days in anonymity in New York City. He is visited by white supremecists who idolize him, and there isn't a ton of humor in this book, by Vonnegut standards, but the story of the supremacist dentist is among the funniest moments in Mother Night.

Howard had lived a rich love life before the collapse of Germany as well, and a woman calling herself his former wife Helga also visits New York to give him a brief respite of happiness in his old age. Then all goes wrong and he ends up turning himself in. Spoiler alert: the novel does not end well for Howard in that Israeli jail.

Even though Howard is a surprisingly sympathetic character through much of the tale, the moral is that who you pretend to be is who you actually are. Howard tried to hide behind his American spy status, but he truly said horrendous things over the air during the war that make it difficult to forgive him.

Mother Night is a quick read and pretty perfect for these times, when it remains too early to tell, before Donald Trump assumes the American throne, whether certain groups of people will be rounded up and deported or worse. Even if Trump never does all the ruthless and mean things he promised during his campaign, he will never be able to fully run away from who he pretended to be simply for the sake of beating his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton.

4 out of 5 stars


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