Dave Kavanagh Reviews ‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann

Reviewed ByDave Kavanagh

‘Tyll’ Daniel Kehlmann Translated by Ross Benjamin


ISBN-10 : 1529403650

ISBN-13 : 978-1529403657

‘He’s a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake’s like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he’s watching you now and he’s gone when you turn.’

So runs the blurb on the back cover of this book which is nominated for the International Booker Prize 2020. This is author, Daniel Kehlmann’s fusion of themes, events and traditions that all come together in the telling of Tyll’s story. Kehlmann is not the first to write about Tyll Ulenspiegel/ Till Eulenspiegel (German pronunciation); indeed, the title character has been around since appearing as the protagonist of a German chapbook published in 1515. Tyll also appeared in a Belgian novel by Charles de Coster written in the 19th century and there are a number of statues of Till in Germany where he is viewed as a sort of will-o-wisp character.

Here, Kehlmann has appropriated the character of the original Till, the curious jester, performer, magician, ventriloquist, vagabond and sometimes hero of folk tales, and moved him forward in time, placing him in a death and pestilence ridden Central Europe in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.

The author has taken massive liberties with historical personages and has reshaped events to suit the narrative, so this is not historical fiction in the real sense, it is rather an omnium-gatherum of characters both real (some repurposed) and imagined who relate the story of a Europe that we can hardly imagine in the modern day.

The novel opens not at the beginning of the story, but many years later. The opening line, ‘The war had not yet come to us. We lived in fear and hope and tried not to draw God’s wrath down upon our securely walled town, with its hundred and five houses and the cemetery, where our ancestors waited for the Day of Resurrection.’ These few words set the scene for us and foreshadow the brutality of the times and the fear of the peasantry of soldiers arriving to pillage, rape and burn their homes to the ground. Many of the characters we encounter in the story believe that their ill fortune is evidence of God’s wrath and blame the sinners, the witches and the warlocks for all that is visited upon them, from poor weather, to crop failure to disease and death

The book is structured like a dark folktale, and boy, but there is a surfeit of darkness. When we first meet Tyll as a boy, he is in the home of his father Claus, a miller who is not only a Christian but a man who also ponders cosmic mysteries, uses healing spells and inscribes pentagrams on his door and elsewhere to fend off the evil which seems to exist everywhere.

When two inquisitors arrive in the village, they see Claus as a heretic in the grip of the devil and he is taken into custody, tortured until he admits his culpability, then hanged. As the unfortunate Claus is been taken away, Tyll flees his childhood home in the company of Nele, a girl whom he is in love with, though their love is never acknowledged.

Kehlmann utilises a pastiche of styles (I could see Tarantino directing this as a film if it were ever made) and, though Tyll is the main character, he is really a device on which the entire retelling of this dark period in history is suspended. The book does not use a conventional timeline; instead, it moves backwards and forwards. It is split into sections, many of them viewed from the perspective of characters other than Tyll and in some of these sections, I felt the work lost some of its dynamic; however, it never became boring, the characters remained believable and the settings authentic.

Throughout the story, we meet travelling performers, peasants, aristocrats, inquisitors, (Athanasius Kircher is an example of a repurposed character) military men, ambitious politicos and more than a few chancers and schemers. It is the author’s skill at constructing and developing characters that adds greatly to the plausibility of a narrative we might otherwise dismiss. We meet the Winter Queen, Elizabeth (the daughter of King James of England) and her weak husband, the Winter King as they travel though bleak and forbidding terrain, stalked by pestilence, war, famine and death, the inevitable four horsemen, commonplace in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War.

In one scene, we accompany The Winter King into a military camp.

‘Everything would have been normal if you hadn’t seen so many sick men: sick men in the mud, sick men on sacks of straw, sick men on the wagons – not merely wounded men, but men with sores, men with bumps on their faces, men with watering eyes and drooling mouths. Not a few lay there motionless and bent; you couldn’t have said whether they were dead or dying.’

Even, Elizabeth the Winter Queen suffers hunger and squalor. It seems that premature death is the fate of almost all, except for Tyll, who despite his penchant for taking risks and his presence during the most dangerous of events, seems to somehow survive.

In the closing pages of the book, Elizabeth offers to take Tyll to England with her so he can enjoy daily soup, thick blankets, warm slippers until he dies in a soft bed, a destiny she declares cannot be bettered for one such as himself, but Tyll refuses and tells her that there is a better destiny, and that of not dying at all.

‘Tyll’ is a hard book to categorise, there is much that it could be criticised for. If you are into history, Kehlmann’s altering of events and timelines might really annoy you. In saying all of that, I enjoyed ‘Tyll’ for its irreverence, its nod to the occult beliefs of its time, its inarguable depth and substance. Oh and its darkness. (Insert evil laugh here.)

Some reviewers drew conclusions about references to the Trump administration in this novel; I found none, but then perhaps I wasn’t looking for them.