book review · other

Reading After Trump: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

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Usually the end of campaign season signals a breath of relief as we put ‘politics’ on the shelf once more, to collect dust until whispers of 2020 roll along. But this time the presidential election made me – and many – feel more political than ever.

So I picked up a novel, because reading is always relevant.

And what a great first pick I accidentally chose! Mother Night is written in the form of a memoir. Howard W. Campbell was an American spy in Germany whose cover was that of a Nazi radio broadcaster; he got on the air and spewed antisemitic hate speech. Encoded in his coughs and carefully-planned stutters was information crucial to the American war effort.

But now he’s being held in an Israeli prison for his war crimes, and America will neither confirm nor deny that he was a spy.

“I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”

Kurt Vonnegut poses questions about political responsibility. In his introduction he says: “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” While I think the story actually offers much more than this simple moral, this Vonnegut novel in particular seems especially pertinent today. We have an American president-elect who spewed hate speech to win an election; now he vaguely disavows hate groups and brushes off his campaign as mere ‘rhetoric.’ Since when is ‘rhetoric’ a cop-out? Since when does insincerity matter?

Vonnegut’s books are packed with imagery, and usually one or two images stay with me more than any others. For this book, it came towards the beginning, as Howard remembers being in a Nazi death camp when the Americans came. There was a row of Nazis hanging from the gallows where Jews used to hang, and Howard thought he would hang next.

“My photograph was taken while I looked up at the gallows. [An American lieutenant] was standing behind me, lean as a young wolf, as full of hatred as a rattlesnake.

The picture was on the cover of Life, and came close to winning a Pulitzer Prize.”

Mother Night is Vonnegut at his best: funny and nihilistic, wise and relevant. I’m always amazed that somehow Vonnegut’s sparse prose and short chapters add up to form complete characters, settings, and plots – seamlessly woven in with political ponderings. His books feel flimsy, and yet there’s no writer whose wisdom has stayed with me more over the years.


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