Both Jews and Christians believe that their actions are recorded and reviewed after death. They are judged on the good and evil they have done in their life to determine if they are worthy of heaven or doomed to hell. I thought about this all through Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Mother Night. We meet the protagonist of this occasionally preachy novel, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., as he is about to go on trial in Israel for war crimes. During World War II, Campbell wrote and broadcast virulent anti-Semitism for Joseph Goebbel’s propaganda operation. He did this because he believed he had been recruited by the CIA to pass on intelligence in his broadcasts. Does the supposed good he did make up for crimes that got Julius Streicher hanged at Nuremberg?
Campbell is writing his memoirs, but he glosses quickly over his activities during the war. He talks briefly about the man who recruited him and rescued him after Campbell was arrested by an American soldier. Instead, he focuses on the purgatory-like years he spent in New York, keeping quietly to himself. Campbell doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself after the war. He doesn’t have a mission anymore. He doesn’t have a job. His only friend is, unbeknownst to him, a Soviet spy. Campbell suspects that the Israelis will come after him eventually (this book was written shortly after Adolf Eichmann‘s trial in Jerusalem).
What pushes Campbell to give himself up, I think, is his own judgment of himself. He did a lot of evil during the war. His words fueled Nazi hatred of Jews, black people, and anyone who was not Aryan. The evil continued after the war, as Campbell discovers when American white supremacists find him and praise him for telling “the truth” about the world. Campbell firmly believes that he did good during the war, but his contribution is never quantified. Campbell, and we readers, are left with the question of whether or not that good was enough to outweigh the evil. It’s clear that there’s no good to balance out the poisonous effects of his words on the new batch of white supremacists. Campbell’s score sheet does not look good. Mother Night ends before Campbell’s trial begins, so we are left to judge him ourselves.
The premise of Mother Night is what drew me to the book in the first place. I relish ethical dilemmas like this, where it seems like there is no correct way to act. Unfortunately, we are never really given a chance to inhabit Campbell as a character. Instead, we see him in conversation with a variety of characters who project onto him what they want to see: a monster, a martyred hero, a pawn, etc. Even this might have worked for me if so many of those conversations hadn’t been so clearly weighted with morals and meaning. Vonnegut whacks over the head repeatedly with unnaturally quotable dialogue in which characters firmly declare what they think and why. There is so little subtext in Mother Night that reading it feels like cheating. It’s surprising, considering the premise and subject matter, that this book has so little depth.