switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Mother Night

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
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Feb 22, 2011

it was amazing
Read in November, 2010

It is rare that I consider a book unimpeachable--that also has the dubious horror of being anointed as a sacred cow or a platitude in the making. But there is a reason that Vonnegut's work is acknowledged as ageless and incomparable. He really is just that. MOTHER NIGHT is his third book, written in 1961, and the first book written in the first person, which allows the reader to descend deeper and deeper into the protagonist's mind. Vonnegut's past history of surviving the 1945 bombing of Dresden while underground in an abattoir has provided a lot of meat for several of his novels, and this one is a riveting example. This isn't one of Vonnegut's shaggy dog or science fiction stories. It has more of a reality-based feel to it. Every sentence is necessary and carefully wrought. His satire is on full display, but love and humanity are intertwined. His ability to embrace the skeptic with the sentimentalist seems effortless.

The primary theme is penned in Vonnegut's introduction, written five years after the hardback was released.

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

After the editor's note written by the (fictional) editor of this confessional story, we are introduced to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the protagonist and narrator of his story as an American spy and former playwright and poet living in Germany during WW II. He is imprisoned in Israel for war crimes of treason and crimes against humanity; he was so good at his job that no one presently believes his patriotism and service to America. Campbell gave impassioned radio broadcasts, delivering prolific anti-Semitic messages to all of Nazi Germany. His "code" to the Americans was conveyed in mannerisms, emphases, coughs, and verbal stumbles. He became a minor celebrity to the Nazis.

He loved and adored his German wife, Helga; together they were a "nation of two." As a playwright, he understood "lies told for the sake of artistic effect" and that lies, in art, can be "the most beguiling forms of truth." He never told Helga that he was a spy. He was separated from her, and she was presumed dead, and he later emerged in Greenwich Village to attempt to live in anonymity, although he kept his name. Helga--or someone like Helga--re-emerged, also. And a variety of white supremacists found him and wanted to herald him and protect him from harm. Only Vonnegut can combine slapstick with white supremacy and hold your heart in his teeth.

This book had me in thrall from the first to last page. I paced periodically while reading--re-reading sentences, phrases, paragraphs. I was captivated by Vonnegut's ability to turn every truth upside down and every lie inside out. The revelations of truth were in every contradiction and the fullness of humanity in every insanity and evil act. This book will make you question what is right and what is true about the things we think we believe and believe in.

Vonnegut was a prescient writer in his day, and his work is still ahead of its time.

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