Books

Tyll

by Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)



On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

This is a very clever book, a very mischievous book (appropriately) and a very mythic book (somewhat appropriately). The title implies that the book is about Till Eulenspiegel, a semi-mythical ideal-jester figure who may or may not have lived in the 14th century or so. He was a mixture of a kind of Shakespearean fool, slapstick comic, acrobat, circus performer, ribald pervert and shock jock. If you read the 16th century English translation of the German chapbook, it’s often difficult to work out where the gag actually lies, and how it is in anyway particularly notable, as opposed to just mean, nasty, brutish and shortly savage.

You belong to the travelling people, no one protects you, and when it rains, you have no roof. No home. No friends but others like you, who will not like you very much, because food is scarce. That is the price you pay to be free.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

Kehlmann points toward a disruption immediately by setting the book in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War (around a hundred years after the chapbook publication). He doesn’t care for the history of the figure, but more for the mythos. However, he begins the novel in a very traditional manner. He lulls you in. We get a described history, that crashes from view; followed by another described history that also slowly unravels…

And I can see what he’s doing here, and I can see his purpose … and it’s interesting, certainly. And his writing is powerful and often highly effective.

But…

I really wanted more Tyll. The parts of the novel that were more specifically about him (about 20% of the story) were when I was excited as a reader, as opposed to simply interested. When we got into long asides with the Princess Elizabeth (despite the lovely little bit with Shakespeare) and various other figures who encounter Tyll along the way (or maybe they didn’t) I must admit I would glance ahead to see when it was going to end, and if Tyll was going to show up again soon.

“To save time I have already written the chapter in Rome.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

And he does show up (at least in some form) regularly enough to keep you interested. And yes, he’s a mythic figure and so he’s being treated in this mythic clever way etc etc… And there’s a strong dare-I-say postmodern theme throughout the novel of how stories are all stories within stories etc and yes, that’s all been done before, but Kehlmann doesn’t push it on you in an unpleasant way at all. At one point, a person who witnesses a battle uses another account he read of a different battle to describe it, who used another account of a different battle again to describe that battle, by a man who had never witnessed a battle. And of course, we the reader know that Kehlmann has just described the original battle in the usual way we are used to having battles described to us in our era, about the horror and blood and fear and death … and he too has never witnessed one either etc etc. And this all smacks very nicely of Tyll-like trickery and chicanery etc etc.

But…

… I walked away dissatisfied. Is Kehlmann playing me for a fool? As the Reader, am I the King he has the right to mock? Again maybe…

But…

“In front of distinguished lords and ladies I always miss. Then they give more money.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

I gave it three stars on Amazon. It’s a 5 star story with a 1 star focus.

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