“We are what we want to be, and so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” (Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, 1961)
This strangely normal tale from the otherwise oddball-idea author, Kurt Vonnegut, is the recorded memories of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American Nazi, from his jail cell in Israel in the years following the war. Accused of war crimes committed as a radio propagandist for the Nazi War Machine, Campbell tries to argue for leniency from his Jewish captors, for although he said many horrendous things against the Jewish race, he did so while also divulging German state secrets as an American double-agent. The problem is, no one in the American government who knew is willing to speak up for “the radio scourge of the Jews,” for fear of losing their great ally in the Middle East.
This third novel from the prolific Vonnegut is certainly an interesting tale, even though it lacks much of the sci-fi subplots that generally characterize his stories. There’s no mention of Kilgore Trout, of course, but Campbell himself turns out to be a fairly multi-faced character himself. As happens in many of Vonnegut’s books, however, the story kind of gets muddled partway through, as if chronology no longer matters to the story. Instead, the chapters seem to merely turn into an endless series of random dialogue and off-color anecdotes. All told, they still maintain Vonnegut’s trademark societal criticisms, but they also tend to detract from the story at hand.
What makes this story as historically interesting as his far more popular Slaughterhouse Five, is the fact of Vonnegut’s own World War II experience: a German-American soldier who fought for the Allies and was eventually captured and interred at Dresden. Thus in Mother Night, we yet again get a sense of autobiography from Vonnegut in a way that only the best writers can perform.
Because this book also deals with some of the harsh realities of the Holocaust—at least in Vonnegut’s own irreverent way—it makes me happy to have recently read such books as The Auschwitz Escape, The House on Garibaldi Street, and Invisible Eagle. Already understanding the historical context of a given novel when first getting into it helps a reader delve into its deeper levels. Perhaps now I might finally be ready for something far more difficult: to read (or at least watch) Schindler’s List. Perhaps.