I’ve read half of the 2020 International Booker Prize shortlist and Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is my favorite. It’s easier to write a negative review than a positive one because it’s easier to say what’s wrong with a book than what’s right. Often, a negative quality can be demonstrated with a couple quotes, but what’s most satisfying about Tyll is the number of payoffs and connections between its narrative voices and you can’t demonstrate this with anything shorter than the whole book.
Tyll is a series of non-linear stories about Tyll Ulenspiegel, a trickster and jester. In the opening chapter, he visits a small town with his companions to perform plays, music, and tightrope walking:
Above us Tyll Ulenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly—not like someone in danger but like someone looking around with curiosity. He stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips. And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was. We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people. (Loc 171) [Note: The first-person narrator is only present in the first chapter.]
These qualities—that Tyll does what he wants, believes nothing, and obeys no one—make him an unpredictable character. He’s simultaneously generous and malicious, shifting from charming to rude in an instant. The second chapter covers his childhood, when his father (Claus) saved his mother from dying in childbirth and two men arrived to question his healing abilities. These men, with their circular logic about dragons and healing, are funny at first but become terrifying when Claus is tried for witchcraft. After his father’s death, Tyll leaves with a girl from his village, Nele. She accompanies him because she knows what will happen if she stays:
Girls don’t go other places. They stay where they were born. So it has always been: you’re little, you help in the house; you get bigger, you help the female hands; you grow up and marry a Steger son, if you’re pretty, or else a relative of the smith or, if things go badly, a Heinerling. Then you have a child and another child and more children, most of whom die, and you continue to help the hands and in church sit somewhat farther toward the front, next to your husband and behind your mother-in-law, and then, when you’re forty and your bones ache and your teeth are gone, you sit in your mother-in-law’s old seat.
Because she didn’t want that, she went with Tyll. (Loc 1565)
Between Claus’s death and the sad arc that Nele predicts for her life, it’s exciting to see Tyll and Nele leave for something else. Given that these early chapters feel like an introduction to these characters and the book is called Tyll—it’s not unreasonable to think they’ll feature prominently in the rest of the book. But no, they become supporting characters. The remaining chapters (with one strange exception) are seen from other perspectives.
This is what makes Tyll so difficult to review. Expectations shape a reading experience and I couldn’t suppress my disappointment each time Tyll was relegated to a minor role. The middle of the book focuses on key events and players in the Thirty Years War, but after reading the Wikipedia page several times, I’m still confused as to what started and prolonged this conflict. Tyll was originally written in German, so I wonder if less background info is needed for its original audience. With its non-linear construction and fantasy-based elements, Tyll never tries to be a history book.
I considered shaving a point or two from the final score because this book has more to do with the Thirty Years War than advertised by the title, blurb, and first two chapters (which comprise 38% of the book). It felt like Tyll was just a hook to pull the reader through the tedious midsection of the novel UNTIL I reread the third chapter after finishing the book. It made more sense in light of knowledge gained from later chapters and I was able to appreciate how different viewpoints in this novel relay events slightly differently—something I only caught occasionally on a first reading because I was still struggling to work out the details of the war. As I reread other sections, I found that payoffs and connections abound to an impressive degree.
As I flip through the book now, the main flaws (the story structure, and the apparent bait-and-switch) no longer seem to exist. But if Tyll has to be read more than once to be appreciated, can I recommend it? Yes. It’s so phenomenal on a second reading that it should be added to TBRs as “Tyll x2” and counted as a 948-page book. As I write this review and reread my favorite passages, I can’t believe there was a time I considered giving it less than a 4.0.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) Despite what appear to be pacing problems on a first reading, Tyll contains several chapters that are among the best I read in 2020. One chapter in particular, “The Great Art of Light and Shadow” is perfect.
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