When I was growing up, Kurt Vonnegut was hailed (or pigeonholed) as a "brilliant" science-fiction writer. I tried some of his books (I don't remember which, now), and was disappointed to find they weren't really science fiction. (Which, in retrospect, was accurate - Vonnegut began as a science-fiction author, was often described as such, but many of his later novels aren't science fiction at all. People just didn't know what 'category' to put him in...)
Decades pass, and one day Amazon puts Mother Night on sale as its featured Book of the Day. I haven't heard anyone talk about Vonnegut in years (was he just a fad?), but I'm curious what his books are like, so I spend $0.99 USD and grab the book in its Kindle edition.
This novel begins with Howard Campbell, Jr., a prisoner in an Israeli prison, a suspected war criminal. During WWII, Campbell (an American) broadcast propaganda on behalf of the Nazis. From prison, Campbell is now telling his side of the story - that he was working undercover for U.S. intelligence, but that they disowned him after the war due to his terrible reputation. And the reader is wondering... is Campbell telling the truth, or lying?
Campbell describes himself as a playwright in pre-war Germany, more interested in the love of his life (Helga) than in politics, who is persuaded to become a mole for the Americans within the Nazi government. Soon Campbell is writing Nazi propaganda and then making English-language broadcasts, but embedding coded messages for the Allies.
After WWII, the Allies refuse to acknowledge their relationship with the despised propagandist, and arrange for him to "disappear" back in the U.S. In despair after the apparent loss of his wife during the war, Campbell is content to be "invisible"... but his existence is finally revealed, and soon everyone is after him - the Israelis, the Communists, American patriots, and American Nazis!
On the face of it, this is a madcap, fast-paced satire that is a quick and enjoyable read, full of strange and amusing characters, and not a few twists and turns. At that level, I found it entirely successful.
However, from the author's introduction, we know that Vonnegut intended this story to have a moral: "we are what we pretend to be." Campbell's claim is that he never believed in Nazism, but that no matter how ridiculous his Nazi propaganda seemed to him, there was always an audience for it! Yet does pretending to be a Nazi, supposedly on behalf of the Allies, make one a Nazi? I don't see that Vonnegut ever makes his case. Rather, Vonnegut seems to be arguing that even pretending to be a Nazi can have terrible consequences... but that's not the same thing.
So this book succeeds as a satire, fails in terms of the author's intended moral... but still leaves you thinking, making it something of an unintentional success.
Some of the material here is sexual/erotic, so this book is not appropriate for younger readers.
Wargamers will find this book inspirational for post-war Pulp anti-Nazi adventures, with quite a few characters that it would be nice to see in pewter!
I read this book in its reprint edition, part of a new Vonnegut library series available for the Kindle. The title is taken from Faust. This book was made into a movie of the same name back in 1996, starring Nick Nolte.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .