Dial Press, 282 pages, paperback, $17.00
I’ve not yet read everything by Kurt Vonnegut, but of what I’ve read, this is the best. In fact, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is funny, tragic, and, above all, wise. Vonnegut has a canny knack for recognizing and putting into words the grey areas of life, where morals are not clear, where it takes an immense amount of critical thought just to recognize and accept that such grey areas do exist, and that not everything can be reduced to a mere simple labeling of either “good” or “bad.”
And such a theme could not be more timely in 2019. The book’s narrator, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., is in an Israeli prison in the early 1960s, about to be put to trial for crimes against humanity. The American-born Campbell, raised in Germany and wed to a German (and Nazi sympathizing) wife, served as an American spy during WWII. The only problem is that, while undercover in Germany, he served as a Nazi radio propagandist…and he was a little too good at his job.
To further complicate matters, only a few people in the entire world knew he was a spy; at the time the story takes place, only one such person remains alive.
Vonnegut is able to use this set-up to not only tell an incredible story brimming with black humor and surprising character twists, but to hold up a mirror to the entire human race, so eager to judge and so willing to believe what it wants to believe.
“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. So many people wanted to believe me!
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.” (p. 160)
Sound familiar? Maybe Alex Jones, or hell, all of Fox News?
Another quote, in which Vonnegut provides a perfect metaphor for cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance:
“The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.
“Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell–keeping perfect time for eight minutes and thirty-three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.
“The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible to ten-year-olds, in most cases.
“The willful filing off of gear teeth, the willful doing without certain obvious pieces of information–
“…That was how Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, could alternate over the loudspeakers of Auschwitz great music and calls for corpse-carriers…” (p. 224-225)
Lastly, because I have to share it, Vonnegut’s impressive indictment of war (and perhaps his own country, or any country at war, physically or ideologically):
“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive. It’s that part of an imbecile…that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.” (p. 251).
Not to repeat myself, but to emphasize: Mother Night is a very well-told, gripping story. I couldn’t put it down. Perhaps the quotes I chose suggest that this book is a lecture by Vonnegut. Far from it. Vonnegut possesses the ability to wax poetic while telling a tale like no other.