This novel is a wonderful blend of light and dark historical storytelling. Some passages are lyrical and jaunty, not unlike the stage performances of the picaresque hero, Tyll; singer, player, clown, jester, juggler and tightrope walker. Other segments of the book reflect the harsh and brutal reality of the Thirty Years War and the uncertainty of life at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Tyll is a surreal adventure that really captures the times, the shifting political and religious map that tore through the continent, country by country, city by city, village by village. Intelligent and thought provoking, this is a novel that wears its erudition lightly. Tyll is such an enjoyable rambunctious adventure story that it’s easy to get carried away by the spellbinding storytelling, absorbing the deeper meaning more by osmosis than conscious thought.
Kehlmann has taken as his protagonist a character from German folklore, Tyll Ulenspiegel, entertainer to the rich and poor alike by always for coin. Tyll is, in truth, a man we know very little about other than that he was very popular in his day, a rock star, he has become mythical but here he is made flesh and blood. Reimagined as a three dimensional character he brings his times to life. His story of escape and adventure is entwined with the upheaval and misery of the Thirty Years War, whereas, the real Tyll was probably a just a practitioner of fart jokes. Here he has substance, agency and his take on the world is entertaining. There are other voices too, through them we witnessing pillage, religious persecution, famine, courtly life and the cruel reality of everyday peasant life. No matter the backdrop Tyll is a master of surviving, of making money.
This novel is often funny, a very enjoyable musing on the nature of history and meaning, myth and memory. Tyll is about how characters reinterpret their surroundings, frame their stories and how we then reimagine them all over again, it’s about our perceptions of people and the past. Kehlmann has an eye for the absurd in human affairs, the pomposity of rank and privilege, he also has an empathy for the down trodden, the outcasts and the one offs. He likes to play games, to make literary allusions, to juxtapose horror with humour but it all works gloriously. The tone of this novel is light and yet has heft. While this is not straightforward storytelling, partly because the time line is fractured, the complexity is so well handled as to be elegant and smooth and very easy to follow. Yet, at the same time, Kehlmann is a creator of powerful darkly disturbing images that will stay with the reader a long time.
The town is small, just over one hundred houses, a church, a graveyard, it has an outer wall, but that won’t protect the people from disease, from religious persecution, or from war. As the war creeps ever closer the citizens live in hope it will pass by them, but they also live in fear because they know that is unlikely. The good citizens prey to the Virgin, to the Almighty, to the Lady of the Forest, the Little People of Midnight, to the saints and to Bishop Martin, to any celestial or human being who can intercede on their behalf. Occasionally merchants arrive and every two years the tax collector comes for his due. They are not totally isolated, leaflets attacking the evil Pope and the devilish Martin Luther somehow land here. However, today is different, better, today will be special, a cry goes up:
“Tyll is here!”
A wagon, a talking donkey, an old woman, a younger woman by her side, Tyll Ulenspiegel’s entourage passing through. The famous jester’s reputation precedes him. Up close they can see that he is well healed, beautifully clad;
“. . .his hands were a thief’s or a scribe’s hands, which had never done work; his right held the reins, his left the whip. His eyes flashed as he greeted this person and that.”
He speaks to a young girl, and she thinks that one day she will tell her husband, her children and her grandchildren of the day she met Tyll. The women set up the stage and the show begins, there is singing and acting, a play with a tragic end:
“Finally he drew his knife and stabbed himself in the breast. It was astonishing: the blade disappeared in his flesh, a red cloth rolled out of his collar like a stream of blood, and he let out a death rattle, twitched, lay still. . .”
Then clowning, the show went on for hours. At a break for lunch and a beer the young girl he saw on his arrival serves Tyll, he offers to take her with him when they leave but she passes up the chance of a different life. The performance resumes, ballads mock the Winter King, whose reign was brief but his arrogance great. Everyone puts money into the collection. Tyll suspends a rope from the church tower across the square. High above the crowd he entreats them to take off one shoe each and throw it in the air, it will be fun. As the brawling and biting ensue, the cart makes its way out of the village, Tyll again sees the girl, tells her that she missed her chance, and then he runs to catch up with the cart. Gone but not forgotten. One year later the soldiers, in their cups, come, not many will survive, not the girl, she will never have children, or grandchildren to tell of Tyll.
Some years before – the boy has strung a rope between two trees, about knee height and he’s practicing his tightrope walk, he falls, and starts again, he perseveres. When he fights with Sepp, twice as old, three times heavier and five times as strong Sepp grinds his face into the dirt. When Tyll extracts his revenge Sepp nearly kills him, Tyll is not like the others. When Dr. Oswald Tesimond of the society of Jesus arrives Tyll’s father Claus naively incriminates himself in the eyes of the Jesuit. Others are ensnared, Hanna Krell makes her confession and condemns Claus as a warlock. A cupboard is;
“… now the interrogation room in which master Tilman and Dr. Tesimond worked day after day on luring the truth out of the old woman.”
Tyll is smart enough to know that the inquisitor is looking at him too. He decides to leave, then and there, no fuss. So begins the adventurous life of Tyll, court jester. He meets Elizabeth of England before she becomes queen, Adam Olearius the court mathematician of Gottorf, the exiled king Frederik V and Queen of Bohemia, Dr Kircher the draconologist, and the Holy Roman Emperor. He is a witness to the hunger, violence, intolerance, pestilence and death.
This is a tale of harsh times, a compassionate and empathetic portrait of a chancer, a man of his times who seized the nettle. The tale of the girl who rejects his offer is one short passage in the book but it speaks so poignantly of the lot of peasants, the masses at the time, of what might have been by did not come to pass. The multiple voices add balance and perspective to the story as folklore blends with real history. Tyll is superbly translated by Ross Benjamin, the humour and vibrancy of the story sing out from the pages.
Paul Burke 4/4*
Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
9781529403657 Riverrun Paperback February 2020