ross benjamin


Tyll  -- playful historical fiction that juggles fact and fantasy 

Like his titular hero of legend, German bestseller writer Daniel Kehlmann likes to play tricks

Boyd Tonkin

Like the legendary hero of this novel, Daniel Kehlmann is a trickster, an acrobat, a conjuror. Born in Munich, raised in Vienna, the German bestseller has, over eight novels, played witty inventive games with the forms of fiction while staying rooted in a rich soil of ideas and emotions. Look for equivalent English-language authors, and Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn may come to mind. Kehlmann, likewise, loves to spring narrative surprises. In Tyll, a novel steeped in ancient German folklore, he somehow finds a starring part for a member of the British royal family. 

His book's first protagonist is Tyll Ulenspiegel ("Owlglass'). This puckish prankster emerged in 1515 into print from the storytelling traditions of the Middle Ages. He never lost his hold on the popular imagination, not to mention his appeal for artists such as composer Richard Strauss. 

Despite medieval origins, the subversive lord of misrule has migrated into later epochs. Kehlmann plants the free-spirited Tyll, with his supreme "agility of soul" and body, amid the continent-wrecking savagery of the Thirty Years war -- the dynastic and religious bloodbath that convulsed the German lands from 1618 to 1648, and left a toll of death and ruin unparalleled until the catastrophe of 1914-18. 

Kehlmann is hardly the first German-language writer to find in this pointless mayhem a distant mirror for modern barbarism. Apart from Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, Günter Grass aligned the 1640s and 1940s in his 1879 novella The Meeting at Telgte. In this robust, flavourful translation by Ross Benjamin, Kehlmann often matches the visceral quality of Grass's prose. He has, though, a genial lightness all his own. Tyll and his companions dance, juggle and blag their way through "the never-ending landscape of the war", across years of massacre, starvation, epidemic, torture and pillage. 

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.

One of poor Claus Ulenspiegel's tormentors turns out to be the polymathic scholar Athanasius Kircher; the other, the English Dr. Tesimond, is the sole Catholic conspirator to survive the Gunpowder Plot. Both men existed, if not quite in this way. Kircher's wayward, crackpot genius brings with it a sort of slippage between history and fantasy. Kehlmann's breakthrough novel, Measuring the World, also slid slyly between different levels of reality. His historical fiction always juggles fact and fancy. 

The orphaned Tyll flees the ordeals of his lonely, hungry village. He makes his way, with his female accomplice Nele, across a desolate Germany, as war scourges land and people alike ("like wind and rain, like the sea"). As entertainers in the "travelling trades", Tyll's troupe have no caste, no honour, no protection from random violence. He accepts that as "the price you pay to be free". In its droll way, Kehlmann's portrait of the shape-shifting jester belongs to the German family of the Künstlerroman: the novel of an artist's growth. 

Tyll, however, shares top billing with performers of another hue. His path through corpse-strewn "visions of hell" leads him into the retinue of the "Winter Queen" -- Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I. Her husband Frederick, the Elector Palatine, had unwisely taken the crown of Bohemia, provoked the Catholic powers of the Holy Roman Empire, and so triggered the entire calamity. 

Kehlmann's "Liz" is a memorable creation: shrewd, sad, resourceful and dignified. First with Frederick, then as a widow, she drifts around Europe, a penniless exile trailed by ridicule. Liz finds in Tyll a fellow-pretender and illusionist. The unthroned Queen of Bohemia, once glorified by John Donne, recalls the mighty playwrights and poets of Jacobean London, their potent words "shimmering like cloth of gold". Fragments of The Tempest, of Macbeth, above all King Lear, seep out from her memories into Kehlmann's story. Frederick the deposed king finishes up "without a country in a storm, alone with his fool". Surely, "something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd".

Kehlmann lets the Winter Queen upstage even Tyll. She pleads in anterooms as the Peace of Westphalia brings the carnage to a close. An age of slaughter and superstition will yield to disenchanted Realpolitik. Tyll's trickery, though, endures, as he slakes our perennial hunger for bewitching lies that tell another sort of truth. Kehlmann's own graceful sleight-of-hand makes past and present, myth and history, merge. His time-defying artifice, and artistry, persuades us that "Nothing passed. Everything was. Everything remained".