Mother Night / Kurt Vonnegut

mother night

Howard J. Campbell, as you might have discerned from the letter above, is not a popular man. Quite the opposite. After the end of World War II, he had plenty of enemies and very few friends. Born an American, Campbell moved to Germany as a child before WWII, only to eventually become an illustrious figure in the Nazi regime as a propagandist, issuing malicious anti-semitic campaigns.

I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

Branded a traitor and despised by the world as a Nazi war criminal he currently sits in an Israeli jail, on trial for his crimes, using an old German typewriter to pen his memoirs – his version of events. Campbell, who worked under Goebbels and became a celebrated figure in Germany during the war, says his actions were a result of a secret deal to become a spy for the US military.

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

Published in 1961 Mother Night is Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, and it is typically Vonnegut; heavy topics and dark themes narrated with prose that is light, funny and painfully human. Vonnegut states the book’s moral right from the off: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be. And so we read Howard J. Campbell’s memoirs, as he tries to justify his vile and hateful deeds. As he would have us believe, his frequent radio broadcasts (in which he X) were containing codes which were providing intelligence to the Allies throughout the war. But Campbell, and by extension, the reader, is in constant turmoil. Are evil deeds justified, if they service good?

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While Campbell confirms he was approached by Frank Wirtanen, a US military agent (or his ‘blue fairy godmother’, as Campbell describes him) to work as a spy during the war, this is not acknowledged by the US government once the war is over, and Campbell is unable to prove his innocence. When he is discovered after the war, alive and well, back in the country he betrayed, the mob bays for his blood. Campbell is forced to seek shelter and support from his only allies – fascists and racists that still see him as a hero for his Nazi propaganda. This supporting cast are reprehensible for the most part but Vonnegut is able to find something good (and entertaining) in most, even if they are still awful people.

‘You hate America, don’t you?’ she said.
‘That would be as silly as loving it,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.’
‘You’ve changed so,’ she said.
‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else what are world wars for?’

Vonnegut creates a whole void of grey, a million shades away from black and a million shades away from white, in which you genuinely are unsure whether to root for and sympathise with Campbell, or condemn him. But while Campbell is beautifully conflicted and guilt-ridden, he was not quite – for me at least – as compelling a character as I am used to reading about in a Vonnegut, nor the cast of satirical support. They did not affect me in Mother Night as they have in other novels, such as The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle.

Let there be nothing harmonious about our children’s playthings, lest they grow up expecting peace and order, and be eaten alive.

Having said that, Mother Night is still an outstanding book and while it is not my favourite book by Vonnegut, it is written by Vonnegut, and so it has its trademark gallows humour and moments of bittersweet and humanistic victory, as well as terribly sad conclusions.

It was late autumn. Oysters had come back in season, and we were feasting on a dozen apiece. I’d known Kraft about a year then.
‘Howard — ‘ he said to me, ‘future civilizations — better civilizations than this one, are going to judge all men by the extent to which they’ve been artists. You and I, if some future archaeologist finds our works miraculously preserved in some city dump, will be judged by the quality of our creations. Nothing else about us will matter.’
‘Umm’ I said.

2 comments
  1. I’m gonna check this out. There’s a Vonnegut-shaped hole in my education, and this sounds like a fantastic remedy.

    • If you haven’t read any Vonnegut before you are in for a treat!

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