Book Review | Daniel Kehlmann & The Power of Mockery

Amid a topsy-turvy world of disasters and demagogues, Daniel Kehlmann has resurrected the 14th-century German Robin Hood, Till Eulenspiegel, in a picaresque Bildungsroman that offers a satisfying antidote to tyranny. Balancing above the world on a tightrope, the intellectual and moral superiority of the legendary jester reveals the vile – but also vulnerable – nature of authority and the force of clever manipulation. In a masterful play with illusions, Kehlmann voices universal social criticism and redefines the concept of freedom and humanity. 

After a 1997 debut with Beerholms Vorstellung, Kehlmann burst onto the international literary scene in 2005 with his block buster novel Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt), a fictional biography of German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and geographer Alexander von Humboldt, No.2 on The New York Times’ international bestseller list.

A Reimagined German Folk Hero

In Kehlmann´s telling, “Tyll Ulenspiegel” is a re-imagined version of the folk hero from a German chapbook, first published in the 16thcentury. He became the archetypal clown figure and the master of mockery. Connecting a net of literary works, including Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Kehlmann’s Tyll now finds himself in the Thirty Years’ War fueled by religious conflict and hunger for power – inviting a comparison with today’s ills. 

“[I]n the dark… closing your eyes helps as little as opening your eyes wide…,” says Tyll, having fallen from his high wire. “Shall we sing? Perhaps someone will hear us!” Illusions of death and life merge in his dance, the decay of mores and yet hope for humanity.

It’s a deft literary slight of hand: Reinventing the German fabulist tradition familiar from the Brothers Grimm – retelling the life of Tyll in eight non-linear chapters as glimpses of memory – Kehlmann also revolutionizes the conventions of the novel. In his historic jugglery, Kehlmann juxtaposes moods, motives and characters to mock traditional beliefs about kings, priests and clowns. 

“The devils are God’s will?”

Dramatic Tension and Lavish Humor

High above the crowd, a rope was slung between the window grille of the church tower and the town hall’s flagpole. Ulenspiegel appeared in the window, stepped on the rope and started to walk steadily across. No lifeline, no net; unlike people’s life surrounded by the war, his performance was real. Winning over the breathless crowd he shouted from above: “Take off your shoes!” And at his command, the villagers started throwing their footwear, a great expense for the poor. “You good-for-nothing beetle-brained oafs. Now fetch them again.” 

Evoking the qualities of folktales with dramatic tension and lavish humor, the opening chapters are irresistable, drawing readers into the world of a young boy hiding in a magic forest, balancing clumsily on his rope. 

Tyll was only a child when his father fell victim to the inquisition. Among his prosecutors was a scholar of dracontology, who claimed that “dragon blood is a substance of such power that you don’t need the stuff itself.” Medicine – the art of substitution – encourages replacing what you do not have or cannot find. With such remarks, Kehlmann exposes the hypocrisy of science and of authorities as manipulative impostors. 

Setting off with his friend, the orphaned Tyll joined a group of travelling entertainers hoping to find home, food and a profession. After years on the road, he was captured by a royal delegate. Sarcastically he exclaimed: “His Majesty, His Idiotic Majesty… heard about me because I sent for you.”  At the court he taught his donkey to speak, made fools of – albeit kindly – the royal couple, and accompanied the king on his last journey. 

From Magic to Reality

In the chapters of Tyll’s adult life, Kehlmann shifts his focus, sacrificing the magic of a revived folktale for more traditional dramatic fiction centering on Tyll’s relationship with his masters and fellowmen. This change evokes the natural transition of life, from youth’s magic to adulthood’s reality. Tyll’s clownish behavior amidst dramatic events, such as the king’s death, creates tension which stresses the moral significance of these events. 

 “In a storm, alone with his fool, ” he muses,“ – something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd.” Between the air and the earth, Tyll’s life spans the darkness of deadly metal mines and the magic of his carefree dance. 

Translator Benjamin Ross conserves the novel’s terrific, original style in humorous turns embellished with rhymes, alliteration – the sky “far and full of frayed clouds” — imagery and phonic effects. He also succeeds in mirroring Kehlmann’s critique of the literary canon’s authority in translating the German mocking phrase Schon Tonn (roughly “big fat” ) to “John Dung”, echoing the sound in a satirical reference to Elizabethan poet, John Donne

A Revival of Humanity

Kehlmann’s account of Ulenspiegel’s life implies social criticism – unmasking the abuse of power, subverting social convention and stirring a revival of humanity. Tyll’s mockery of everything and everyone lifts him above inequality and injustices. In the times of the pandemic, the novel could well be read as a commentary on the neglect of artists – culture’s truth tellers – forgotten in the frenzy of survival. 

It’s an important message: Power is vulnerable, freedom a human need.

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