Tyll. Daniel Kehlmann.

Kehlmann, Daniel. Tyll. Pantheon, New York, 2020. F; 3/20.

This ironic picaresque features a 17th-century clown or troubadour and manages to be playful and deadly serious at the same time. Tyll Ulenspiegel cavorts around central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, and terrible events and an implied moral tone reminded me of War and Peace: openly hideous and shocking. But this clever and accomplished magic-man stays one jump ahead of the grim reapers abroad in his world by being at once more entertaining and more cynical than everyone else.

Tyll’s intellectually curious dad, the town miller, is trapped by Catholic inquisitors into being executed for heresy. The boy is already walking tightrope and playing tricks, but escapes with his girlfriend Nele into the woods where they meet older troubadour Pirmin. Although he is  devious and cruel they learn a lot of entertaining trickery from him. He also explains:

If you want to eat, perform. That’s how it is now. That’s how it will be until you kick the bucket. You belong to the traveling people… Not to have to listen to anyone’s rules. The only rules are that you run when you have to run, and that when you’re hungry, you perform.

Tyll reveres nobody. Pathetic but charming King Friedrich V (the “Winter King” – because he reigned in Bohemia only for one winter) married Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James VI of England. Tyll encounters her and plays an important fictional role in her life and that of her husband, but they have this conversation:

“John Donne wrote me an ode. Fair phoenix bride, he called—”
“Little Liz, he was paid, he would have called you a stinking fish too if he had been given money for it. What do you think I would call you if you paid me better!”

No student of medieval/renaissance history, the terrible force of war surprised me. Although confined to central Europe it could have been called a World War with its couple of dozen belligerents (including pretty well all the important states in Central Europe and Germany) and nearly half a million people including non-combatants killed in battles and by plagues and starvation. It was a religious war, and contributed to the end of the Holy Roman Empire and rearranged the power structure of Europe. Nobody really won, but the Catholics suffered the worst defeats and casualties.

Through all this Tyll appears, disappears, at one point shows up in a town and makes fools of everyone after thrilling them with his entertainment, shortly after which he leaves and the inhabitants are overrun and killed by an unnamed army.

There is spiritual and philosophic content consistent with the beliefs of the era, which is both taken seriously and ridiculed in line with the ambivalent feel of the story:

…the Lord God created himself and still must create himself, day after day, for if he didn’t do so, everything would cease from one moment to the next—who, if not God, should prevent the world from simply not existing?

…indeed. This argument supporting deism or something like it is asking why is there anything? But at the same time the picture of God keeping himself busy to prevent everything falling into a void reminds us of Tyll who does a fine job of the same kind of thing on his own.

Kehlmann is German, wrote in German, and here was translated into English by Ross Benjamin, a senior and awarded translator. But ridicule isn’t confined to royalty or religion. The author has a go at his own language:

(German) was no language for theater, it was a brew of groans and harsh grunts, it was a language that sounded like someone struggling not to choke, like a cow having a coughing fit, like a man with beer coming out his nose. What was a poet supposed to do with this language?

I was told once by a doctor who looks after homeless people and addicts in the part of our city where these people live that the common feature of the people in her practice is “no responsibility”. In the 20th century that exchange of respectability for freedom is usually considered terrifying. In this book we get the suggestion that not much has changed since the 16th century: escaping from responsibility is liberating but still frightening and risky: “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” but “… when you’re hungry, you perform.” Tyll Ulenspiegel performs like nobody else. He’s one in a hundred million.

Like Tyll, this story is unique. The moral scope is not easy to describe but there’s no question it’s there. As the world was in the 1600s it still is. Hilarious, serious, audacious, humane, horrifying. And once in awhile someone magical appears. Quite something.

I think you may have to read this one to get what I’m talking about. Highly recommended. 9.0/9.2 subject to translation.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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