Tyll – Daniel Kehlmann
Kehlmann’s Booker shortlisted novel, first published in German in 2017 and released in a supple translation by Ross Benjamin in 2020, brings to life a mercurial figure of German folklore and history, the legendary jester, Tyll Ulenspiegel, whose picaresque exploits were first recorded in a chapbook from 1515. Here, the author skips a century to relocate the ‘eternal fool’ into a particularly unpleasant chapter of European history. Set primarily against the bleak and bloody backdrop of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Kehlmann’s tale transposes elements of the oral traditions of storytelling, balladry, and folklore onto the squalid realism of historicity. The author seems to channel the Hermes-like trickster-thief-magician qualities of the titular character in the way he deftly adopts and changes viewpoints and timelines. This structural boldness and mastery of the form, along with the ability to render scenes of scintillating wit, tension, and psychological acuity, shows Kehlmann as a master able to juggle and dance with the materials at hand in breathtaking ways. We first meet Tyll in his mockingly cruel prime, able to enchant and manipulate a village into violence. Death sweeps in with that first chapter, and his dark presence remains throughout the narrative – a perpetual memento mori. No one and nothing is safe from his sickle and the vicissitudes of fate’s wheel. Each vignette unfolds like a tarot spread, populated by the stark imagery of the major arcana: The Fool, The Magician, Death, The Devil, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hanged Man, The Empress, and so forth. The (mainly) 17th Century could almost be timeless, like some Secondary World fantasy, but then the fog clears and the mise-en-scène focalizes into thoroughly-researched specificity. Tyll’s particular character – misanthropic, amoral, mocking, or shattered by circumstance into nihilism and laughing at the cruel joke of the world – is pathologized as we discover his devastating backstory. Forged by happenstance and tragedy, it is possible to understand the way he turned out, even if he remains, until the very end of the novel, quixotic, unpredictable, and completely liberated from the stifling, ridiculous rules and conventions of community, society, and court. Like some perverted version of a Grail knight, Tyll has seen through the veil of the world – but instead of returning with the cup to heal the wasteland, he instead uses his darkly awakened perception to cock a snook at one and all. He provides a mirror to people’s vanity and foolishness, and releases the truth of the situation like poison from a wound. As an antihero he is a formidable, unforgettable presence, and reminds me of John Gardner’s Grendel, with elements of Alan Garner’s Guizer thrown into the mix. When Tyll is in the frame the narrative crackles with energy, but I must admit to being less enamoured by the protracted sections from the point of view of the unfortunate exiled ‘king’ of Bohemia and his English wife, Elizabeth Stuart. These sections, however exhaustively researched and well-dramatised, tended to drag for me. It felt like Kehlmann was trying to do a Mantel, especially with the extended final section, which lingered on court etiquette and politics rather too long. The sections following the insufferably conceited scholar Athanasius Kircher are a bit more engaging (and more connected to the title character’s story arc), but in any of these digressions it is only when Tyll appears that things electrify again. Their breadth and depth show Kehlmann’s skill and ambition – collectively, they build up to an unflinching, atomised portrait of a broken Europe – but in comparison to the sheer brilliance of the Tyll sections they struggle to shine. In any other novel they would work perfectly well, but here they feel outclassed. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable romp of a novel, and the character of Tyll leaps off the page as a mesmerising embodiment of the zeitgeist.
Kevan Manwaring, 10 April 2021