Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

The importance of a powerful first sentence in a novel is a necessity all of us book lovers agree on.  It must catch our attention and grip us to make sure we read on. In Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Tyll, first published in Germany in 2017, I read one of the most potent introductory phrases I ever encountered in my many years as a reader: “The war had not yet come to us.”

The war had not yet come to us.

p. 3

What is so powerful about it? Probably just a single word: Yet. Uttered by an undefinable “us”. It does not require further specifications because in Central Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, the temporal setting of the novel, everybody feared the war, and everybody knew that it was coming. The third person plural refers to the people of a single, unnamed village of the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years’ war. The author begins his novel in medias res and throws us back in time. The famous Tyll Ulenspiegel has entered the village to sing and dance and play his usual tricks. When Tyll does his famous tightrope act, the whole village is under his spell. The reader immediately realises that something enchanting, powerful, and dangerous emanates from the skinny acrobat. By the end of the chapter, only a few days after Tyll visited the village, the small town is raided, destroyed and its inhabitants dead. The war has arrived at last. The introduction of the novel is brutal, gruesome, cold, merciless and above all seductive. In the apocalyptic landscape of the Thirty Years’ war, Kehlmann places one character who thrives in chaos: Tyll Ulenspiegel.

Inspired by the literary and possibly historical figure of Till Eulenspiegel, a trickster of the 14th century, Kehlmann created a dizzying picaresque novel that throws Till into the events of the Thirty Years’ war. Till Eulenspiegel as a folkloric figure has raised many questions and up until now, we cannot be sure whether he did exist. Kehlmann himself said that Tyll was the first time he wrote a book whose main character remained a mystery to him. And it is true. One should not expect Tyll to be a biography answering all the pressing questions about the fabulous Till Eulenspiegel. Instead, Kehlmann chose to write eight chapters without chronological order. Throughout the novel, the reader is thrown into different times, different places, and the minds of different characters again and again with every new chapter. Where and when we encounter Tyll is unclear. Only small hidden clues about his appearance or his companions give us hints as to where in the story we find ourselves. It is up to us readers to solve the riddle of the mystery surrounding Tyll Ulenspiegel. It is a deliberate move through which Kehlmann alludes to the literary reception of Till Eulenspiegel in world literature. We simply do not know whether he is real, what he did, where and with whom. To add to this effect, Kehlmann created a fabricated historical reality. When the historically real figures of Elizabeth Stuart and her Winter king Friedrich laugh at Tyll’s tricks, when Athanasius Kircher fears Tyll’s cold stare and when Paul Fleming seeks his verses as inspiration, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. Sprinkled with references to Eulenspiegel’s appearances in german folklore such as Hermann Bote’s 1510 Ein kurtzweilig Lesen von Dil Ulenspiegel geboren uß dem Land zu Brunßwick, wie er sein Leben vollbracht hat, Kehlmann’s literary masterpiece is complete.

And just like that, we accompany Tyll Ulenspiegel, son of the miller Claus, as he grows up in a southern German village. We watch this frail young boy survive the first years of his childhood and a night in the haunted forest and we realise from the very beginning that there seems to be something extraordinary about him. We attend the many hours of practising, in which Tyll tries to perfect his tightrope act and juggling. We stand by Tyll’s side when his father is accused of witchcraft and hanged in the town square. We see Tyll escape with the daughter of the baker, his friend Nele, who becomes his only family. We reencounter Tyll as an actor, singer, dancer, trickster, juggler, and outcast, who lives on the road. We view Tyll through the eyes of Elizabeth Stuart who admires her jester for his jokes and cleverness. We follow Tyll as he accompanies Friedrich V. to meet the Swedish king Gustav Adolf at the height of the war. We fear for Tyll when he is trapped in a mine with other soldiers. We understand why he sought refuge in the Bavarian monastery Andechs to escape the horrors of the war. We are shocked when Tyll is accidentally sucked into the final battle of the Thirty Years’ war in Zusmarshausen. And we are not surprised when we meet him again in Osnabrück, during the negotiations of the Peace of Westphalia, where he entertains the ambassadors with his tricks and rejects an ordinary life in comfort and safety once and for all.

Kehlmann’s descriptions of the suffering and horrors of the Thirty Years’ war are hauntingly well-written and his poetic, as well as clear writing style, manages to carry us through the grim chapters with an enticing lightness. Ross Benjamin translated Kehlmann’s language beautifully without losing its magic. The novel is a fragmented journey through one of the most atrocious and fascinating periods in German history. It takes us back into a premodern world determined by superstition and dark magic. Even though figures like Galilei and Descartes were working on the foundations for a new world order based on science and rationality already, their reality was far away from the people in the Bavarian or Swabian villages of the Holy Roman Empire. The forests are filled with spirits and gnomes, they are too dark and dense and leave no room for clarity and enlightenment in the lives of ordinary people. It is their superstition, spells and obscure mysticism that help them through the dangers and perils of everyday life. It seems as if Kehlmann conjures a world that is long past and couldn’t be further away from us. But in times of fake news and the rise of conspiracy theories, it can be read as a pressing reminder of where we come from.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this novel is the fact that Tyll remains a mystery throughout. While others might criticise the fact that we never learn his secrets, I personally loved the fact that Tyll stays Tyll. He is a shadowy figure and when we encounter him it is through the eyes of others. Can we trust them? Are they reliable narrators? Are they worthy of characterising Tyll for us? Probably not. But this play with fabrication and truth as a metaphor for the literary reception of Till Eulenspiegel is so beautifully done in this novel that I do not want Kehlmann to uncover all the secrets and tricks behind our jester Tyll. Like a magician, Kehlmann does not explain to us how Tyll works to prevent spoiling his tricks. We get clues and hints, fragments, and pieces but ultimately the novel is a big maze. The reader must find his own way through the multiple stories that make up this book, which makes it so easy to lose yourself in it. In the end, Tyll is the Tyll we want him to be. He is everything and nothing at the same time. He adjusts to his environment no matter if it’s the house of the miller, a rope, a forest, the battlefield, or the court. He is flexible and universal like a folkloric hero must be.

I’m leaving now. This is what I’ve always done. When things get tight, I leave. I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to die today. I’m not going to die!

p. 307

In addition to that, Tyll is a born survivor. Once he tells himself that he won’t die, no matter how hopeless his situation might be, he finds a way out. Instead of explaining how he does it, Kehlmann leaves out important details and gives us cliffhangers. Tyll appears and disappears repeatedly, and the open end of this book stays true to this pattern. After all, Tyll is an outcast. He rejects a life of security and comfort. His life becomes a tightrope act itself as he balances and alternates between the boyish jester who plays his tricks and fascinates people and the supernatural and devil-like figure who thrives in anarchy. He appears like a lost child one moment and acts like an incarnation of maliciousness the next. In the end, Kehlmann does not tell us what happens to Tyll or where he goes, because the author does not know that himself. All we know is that as long as Tyll Ulenspiegel is talked about, as long as his stories are repeated from generation to generation, and as long as his name is known all across Europe, he will never die but live forever.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Paperback, published in Great Britain in 2020 by riverrun, p. 342.

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