Or, as the first title was: Red Tyll. But that only makes sense to me.
I read Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill and Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll back-to-back. But not only that: it appears that Kunzru and Kehlmann actually know other and at some point were in residence at some institute at the same time. Apart from that, I will claim that the two books have things in common.
One of my first observations was “How daring – to use a not very nice first person narrator”. And not only not very nice: possibly also quite unreliable, I would say.
But the red pill thing: I had a hard time figuring out (and still has not) how this is supposed to retake the term from the incels and the proud young men. I am either not that smart, or it is truly not obvious. Or both at the same time.
But nevertheless: through the protagonist’s unhealthy obsession with Kleist, Kunzru does manage to remind us that the dark reaction to the Enlightenment was with us from the very start, and this undercurrent will surface now and again. Adorno does point out that Fascism is not a bug of bourgeois liberalism, but rather a feature. In that sense, there is a line from Kleist to Trump and QAnon. But I also think that the narrator is not completely truthful in his telling of Kleist’s story. Certain details seem to be amiss.
And then we go somewhere else. The middle part of story is the retelling of Monika’s story and the horrors of being in the searchlight of the Stasi in the Democratic Republic. At first I thought we were heading to a situation where the Kleist murder-suicide is reenacted with Monika as the female, but instead she finishes her tale og disappears out of the story.
And then the narrator’s mental imbalance really gets to center stage. The third and final part introduces Anton – a dark and manipulative right-wing figure. Perhaps the love child of a happy union between Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon? Anton, perhaps, or least in the narrator-s mind, is a might foe that taunts and persecutes. There are very sharp scenes, and interesting and sharply observed and related situations, but on the whole … on the whole I am just not engaged. Perhaps the fault of this reader.
The hunt for Anton ends in a the place where Anton probably never was. In the outside world, Trump wins the election and what should have been an exuberant evening turns very sour. But are the two things really that related? I really do no get it. But the book has well-written subplots and the whole Monika story would perhaps have been a much better story on its own?
Kehlmann is a master novelist with a dizzying technical capability. Tyll is the story of Till Eulenspiegel, but set later than it usually is, namely during the Thirty Years War.
We jump back and forward in time; we meet characters that disappear just as we thought we knew them and their part; we meet historical characters but realize that something is slightly off and they are not realistically portrayed.
Tyll is the great entertainer that juggles and charms and cons his way through the world, well: mainly Germany, but he does not have any personal life, no love interest, seemingly no passions. He seems weirdly detached, but then again: this is all on a great canvas of sectarian violence and random violence, and great betrayals and small betrayals. Tyll’s father talks himself into being hanged for nothing more than thought crimes.
Athanasius Kircher comes out of this not as the almost-Enlightenment figure we sometimes assume, but instead as a dark and venal Medieval nutter. And so on and so forth.
At one point, some of the characters find a hidden and happy (well: at least peaceful) valley. That is taken away quickly enough, not even by religiously-inspired forces, but by mercenaries that no longer care about much, except about who will pay them.
As historical fiction goes, this is not quite “true”, except that “All this is true,” says one of Kehlmann’s storytellers, “even what has been made up is true.” True.
As novels go, I guess that Red Pill really wants to tell us something about these dark and confusing times, but it is Tyll that manages to do so. Weirdly enough.