Much of Tyll, however, rumbles along in rather plain, magic realism-tinged prose. The most amusing passages riff on arcane theological, philosophical and scientific intrigues. In dialogues between dracontologists – experts on dragons – the loopy logic and scholastic solemnity permit the author to exercise his gift for charming invention. One dracontologist educates an interlocutor thus: “A dragon that had been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable”. Periodically recurring, these seemingly absurd exchanges invite the reader to chuckle at so much ado over dracontological nothing – until, in a lovely and elegiac passage, our ontological assumptions about the subject are suddenly confounded. These Borgesian tidbits, though, are insufficient nourishment over Tyll’s long march.
Told from a variety of perspectives, and with an engaging narrative that zips back and forward in time, Tyll remains as unknowable as the forest spirit he believes himself to be. He escapes witch hunters, loses himself in woods and snowstorms, is buried in a mine and eventually entertains the exiled King and Queen of Bohemia, whose mistakes sparked the long-running battle.
Kehlmann’s prose is elegant, but the brutality of the conflict is inescapable, as hamlets and villages are burnt and pillaged and the dead are heaped on the battlefield.
Constructed as a string of disconnected, slyly contradictory vignettes, the fable-like narrative darts airily around with vivid detail and neat comic timing, treating the cast, and our attention, as playthings. It’s intricate and cleverly done, but not entirely satisfying: nothing in the book matches the spellbinding opening third, and ultimately it has the air of a slightly self-denying experiment – as if Kehlmann sought to test his skill by doing without the novel’s single most interesting character.
Like a magician plucking an egg from an empty palm, Kehlmann summons comedy, farce, wisecracking badinage, even romance, from this blighted time. This Tyll grows up as a clever scamp from Bavaria. His father Claus, a small-time healer and spell-caster who tries to help the sick “according to the old way”, falls foul of a pair of itinerant Jesuits. He dies, after gruesome torture, condemned as a warlock. Magical beliefs pervade this book, set in a period of limbo when they jostled — even in the same minds — with science as we understand it.
Tyll is an absorbing and, for a story about a prankster, remarkably sincere novel. As war sweeps over Germany, empirical fact is infiltrated relentlessly by superstition. A slow trickle of rumours carries knowledge of current and no longer current affairs to the peasants. ‘Leaflets came even to us,’ recalls an unnamed voice in the first chapter. ‘They were about the Ship of Fools and the great priestly folly and the evil Pope in Rome and the devilish Martinus Luther of Wittenberg and the sorcerer Horridus and Doctor Faust and the hero Gawain of the Round Table and indeed about him, Tyll Ulenspiegel.’
We see Tyll as a boy, honing the skills as an entertainer that allow him to escape village life. We see him as jester to the doomed “Winter King” whose acceptance of the Bohemian throne was the war’s catalyst. As a soldier, Tyll defies death on the battlefield; as a prankster, he mocks the moral certainties of generals, politicians and theologians. Kehlmann roots his carefully structured tale, with its rich cast of characters, in the grubby realities of 17th-century Europe, but Tyll Eulenspiegel is a mythical figure who soars above them. This latest version of his adventures is darkly entertaining and inventive.
It’s a testament to Kehlmann’s immense talent that he has succeeded in writing a powerful and accessible book about a historical period that is so complicated and poorly understood. He never pushes the parallels between present and past, but there are many ways in which this strife-torn Europe, fractured by religion, intolerance and war, is a reflection of our own times.
German of that era is a language not yet suitable for poetry, still ‘awkward, a boiling brew’. Proving what a powerful potion it has since become, the narrative moves from myth to historical novel to ballad and back, and Ross Benjamin’s translation follows it faithfully. While in Shakespearean England theatre flourishes, in Germany it’s merely some ‘pitiful players’ roaming the land. Yet Tyll is able to capture the imagination of his audience: ‘And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was… what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one.’
Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is a laugh-out-loud-then-weep-into-your-beer comic novel about a war. As, indeed, is the book you’re reminded of the moment you open its pages. The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, composed in the middle of the 17th century, is arguably the first German novel. Tyll is Kehlmann’s Simplicissimus: his Great German Novel...
So this cast of fops, fools and fiends winds its antic dance across a bloody, burning landscape whose every tree has been felled. It’s operatic in its gestures, and heartbreaking in its absurdity. Kehlmann is at the top of his game.