Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann

Normally I don’t comment on the covers, but I have to say that I vastly prefer the original German cover.

There is no such thing as verifiable truth in Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll. There are only the “truths” and “facts” that the characters can convince each other of; he who argues loudest and with the most convolution wins. There are so many ludicrous examples of circular logic that I couldn’t help but laugh and roll my eyes at the same time. This intellectual landscape is the setting for Kehlmann’s retelling of an old German legend, Till Eulenspiegel, as he bounces around the Thirty Years’ War, political machinations, one witch trial, a possible encounter with the devil, and a lot of squirrelly logic from some of the leading minds of the age.

Tyll is the son of a miller. This sounds ordinary enough until you meet Tyll’s father, Claus. Claus Ulenspiegel (as it’s spelled in the book) has been exposed to a dangerous amount of alchemy, philosophy, and the science of the day. Consequently, it’s not hard to arrest, convict, and execute Claus as a warlock. After his father’s murder, Tyll runs away from his village with Nele, who becomes his adopted sister. Throughout the novel, we check in with Tyll as he becomes a traveling jester, occasional refugee, and briefly court jester to Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. I caught some references to other historical figures that appear in this book, like Athanasius Kircher and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. I’m not well-versed enough in seventeenth-century German history and culture to catch the others.

There is plot in Tyll, but most of the book reads like a series of set-pieces in which characters pontificate on their latest theories or argue with each other. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the barrage of words coming at me. It was only after a few chapters that I started to see a pattern. Kehlmann (albeit a few centuries too late) takes the absolute piss out of the torturous logic like that used by two different characters to explain the existence of dragons, based on the evidence that substances that are similar to dragon blood or bile, can be used to heal people—if the sick person dies, it’s only because they couldn’t get the real stuff to heal the patient. Makes total, sense right? Claus Ulenspiegel torments himself by trying to work out at which point a heap of grains stops being a heap if you take away a grain at a time. The only people who seem to be aware of the absurdities all around them are Tyll himself (who uses it to play sometimes vicious pranks) and, later in her life, Elizabeth Stuart, who pulls off an incredible political gambit that would take pages to explain.

Woodcut of Eulenspiegel, c. 1515 (Image via Wikicommons)

It should be no surprise, with all this intellectual chicanery, that another theme of Tyll is the malleability of history. Not only is history written by the victors: it’s also written (often in advance) by the people who live long enough to tell the tale. Again, most of the action takes place during one of the most confusing and violent conflicts in European history, so surviving is a sort of victory. At one point, Tyll and the people who have been sent to fetch him to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor blunder into one of the last big battles of the war. Near the end of the book, Tyll manages a last visit to Nele—who left the road for a comfortable marriage and settled life—in a scene that implies that Tyll’s life has become so storied that he will, effectively, become immortal. The details of real experiences and life never matter in this book. The legend is what matters.

I’m glad I requested a copy of this book from Edelweiss. I had a great time reading this book. This might sound weird, considering the frequent violence that afflicts Tyll and the other characters. I was hugely entertained by the uproariously twisted intellectual efforts of many of the characters. I laughed out loud at several parts of Tyll. Above all, I was interested to see how historical events were almost immediately spun by characters to their own advantage. (Elizabeth and her husband, Frederick V, both convince themselves that they were the voice of reason when Frederick was asked to be the King of Bohemia—a decision that touched off the Thirty Years War.) Novels that highlight the phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, creative historiography fascinate me.

I’m not sure who to recommend this book to. I know there are other readers who enjoy intellectual puzzles that might like Tyll. It is a very good book and Kehlmann is a very talented writer. The problem is that this book is so unique and it requires not a small amount of background knowledge that I feel like I might need to administer a quiz before I try to talk people into reading it. Tyll is a (worthwhile) challenge for fans of smart historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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