Mother Night


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'Black satire of the highest polish' Guardian Whilst awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison, Howard W. Campbell Jr sets down his memoirs on an old German typewriter. He has used such a typewriter before, when he worked as a Nazi propagandist under Goebbels. Though that was before he agreed to become a spy for US military. Is Howard guilty? Can a black or white verdict ever be reached in a world that's a gazillion shades of grey? 'After Vonnegut, everything else seems a bit tame' Spectator

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Aug 18, 2007

Mixed Nuts

Like Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut seemed a cult novelist that one read in one's twenties and not again. His recent passing and his acerbic comments about the current Iraq war made me rethink that. Vonnegut, who spent part of World War II in an underground meat locker while the devastating firebombing of Dresden occurred aboveground (an experience he would fictionalize in Slaughterhouse Five), legitimately had claims to his dark, comic vision. One of his early novels, Mother Night, holds up. Its narrator Howard Campbell is a Pound-like figure who broadcasts radio propaganda for the Nazis, while spying for the U.S., and who later comes to regret the evil he committed in the name of good. Written in 1961 (the year of the Cuban missile crisis), the novel seems predictive of the lunatic fringes that edged closer and closer to the American political center in the coming decades. The book is populated by a Russian painter-spy, the "Black Fuehrer of Harlem," assorted white supremacists and mixed nuts. For all Vonnegut's deceptive simplicity and accessible style, Mother Night is morally complex, and implies that the U.S. isn't immune to the totalitarian mind. If the author owes a debt to Hemingway and of course Twain, his loopy sentences and catch phrases are wholly his own ("so it goes"). When Mailer referred to Nelson Algren as the "grand oddball," he might just as easily have been referring to Vonnegut.

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