Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

I actually bought this book on a whim whilst browsing in John Sandoe Books – my favourite bookshop. It feels like a welcome challenge to find the book you’re after, likely tucked amongst the packed shelves and tables that balance on warped, creaking wooden floors. You feel triumphant when you do eventually find it and add it to the pile that accidentally but opportunistically formed in your arms (before you ask, I make a point of not asking for help simply for the fun of it). I was intending to buy Rebecca in an attempt to catch up with the rest of the world when I came across a whole stack of Vonnegut.

I have previously read Slaughterhouse 5, his most famous work. I enjoyed the satirical voice, the incorporation of his own experiences in WW2 and the completely wild twists and turns the narrative took, but the Sci-Fi elements threw me. I would still absolutely recommend it, I believe it is fundamental to read things that throw you, it’s good for you.

Anyway, the new-age covers of the Penguin Vintage drew me in and I spent a good while reading various blurbs within the collection. I knew very quickly, however, that I needed to read Mother Night so I took it straight to a cafe feeling very sophisticated with a coffee also in hand.

To do your job right, you’ll have to commit high treason, have to serve the enemy well…

The basic plot revolves around Howard W. Campbell Jr, a renowned Nazi propagandist under Goebbels, currently awaiting trial for war crimes in an Israeli prison. This is his account to prove he is innocent and in fact a double agent. Vonnegut includes an ‘Editor’s Note’ situating the story and bringing a sense of realism (as if we are reading a real case) including the notation about ‘changed names’ to protect identities.

Using an old German typewriter, Campbell writes his confession but claims he was recruited as a spy for the US Intelligence and therefore is not the enemy. ‘Is Howard guilty?‘ is the million-Deutschmark question. Vonnegut cleverly conveys the words to come across as Howard’s own, but we mustn’t completely rely on the character as a reliable narrator of course: he is quite literally writing for his life. There is a feeling of guilt-related honesty from the voice, however. Campbell admits he was very good at his job, responsible for promoting the dogma and converting many to become Nazi sympathisers. Born in America, a young Campbell emigrated to Germany with his parents, and grew to become a respected playwright. Happily married to his beloved Helga, mingling with her family amongst the higher circles of German society, he is suddenly approached and recruited by Major Frank Wirtanen (‘unit unspecified’) as an American intelligence agent. He would be hired and required to broadcast Nazi news to the US, spreading the word, casting a wider net of support. Yet he claims he was told he was also unknowingly sending coded messages of enemy secrets and strategies to listening American intelligence.

The answer as to whether or not he is guilty is not straightforward regardless. Despite his underlying good and useful work helping the allies, he still advocated in favour of Nazism – helping to prolong the problem, creating a ripple effect that cost lives. And yet we hope he is innocent based on his pitiable account. I won’t give away the final conclusion but Vonnegut manages to create a moral/ethical dilemma for the reader: should Campbell be reprimanded for his actions? He was a Nazi official after all.

Much like Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut includes moments of his own experiences as a soldier – referring to his time sheltering in a slaughterhouse in Dresden from allied bombing, for example. His satirical, anti-hero attitude to war is eerily prevalent, entertaining, and perhaps the main reason why I enjoyed the novel so much. It simultaneously brings comic irony and heart-breaking melancholy, reminding readers that War is absurd, excruciating, and not solely made up of romantic, lion-hearted men. Vonnegut also doesn’t waste much time with lengthy descriptions, the book remains concise but not wanting, embodying the impassioned tone of a desperate playwright. Impressive, particularly when referencing such a waffled-about subject as the War.

The Spectator wrote of the author: ‘After Vonnegut, everything else seems a bit tame’, and I’m inclined to agree.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

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