Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Telling truth to power

Cover image I’ve read all of Daniel Kehlmann’s translated novels, each very different from the others but all witty and smart. His last book, You Should Have Left, was a short, gothic number, both chilling and riveting. In comparison Tyll is a lengthy, historical novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years War which raged across what we now know as central Europe from 1618 to 1648. Not a setting which instantly appeals to me but Kehlmann’s a writer I can‘t resist. Opening in a small village when the miller’s eponymous son is still a child, Tyll takes us from the early years of the war to the convoluted negotiations which will bring it to its end.

A sharp, clever little boy, Tyll is never quite the same after spending two nights alone in the woods in the grips of a fever after his mother went into premature labour. His father is fascinated by books, keen to learn as many of the world’s secrets as he can despite having trouble deciphering them, and eager to discuss his ideas with the two passing scholars who turn out to be Jesuits on the lookout for heresy. With villagers always keen to point the finger at those who bring misfortune while placating the authorities, not least God, Claus meets an inevitable fate. Tyll takes off with Nele who’s happy to dodge the marriage, incessant childbirth and early death which looms ahead of her. These two become entertainers: Tyll performing the tightrope walk he’s been perfecting for years, dancing and playing the mischief-making fool, a role that will eventually lead him to the highest court in the land, by way of the King and Queen of Bohemia whose acceptance of the crown has launched the whole sorry venture of the devastating, seemingly never-ending war.

I’m leaving now. This is what I’ve always done when things get tight, I leave

Kehlmann’s richly imagined novel takes us from Tyll’s hungry, squalid village to Osnabrück’s gorgeously appointed Town Hall where peace is finally being negotiated. The village is a hostile world where judgement, fear and superstition rule. At the other end of the social scale, negotiations are dictated by an intricate protocol in which it’s easy to be put on the back foot by one wrong move. Kehlmann’s descriptions are vivid and dramatic, his characterisation sharp and his storytelling engrossing. The whole thing is immensely entertaining, served up with a good deal of very dark wit. Count Wolkenstein’s writing of his unreliable memoirs, leaning heavily towards self-glorification, fifty years after the event is a particular treat.

Even at a distance of half a century he found himself incapable of putting it into sentences that had any actual meaning. Naturally, he described the sight anyway

Throughout it all, Tyll is the fool who sees his masters’ folly, unafraid to speak truth to power if only they’d listen. I loved this novel with its contemporary resonance, gobbling it up. Given the diversity of his fiction so far, I’m left wondering what Kehlmann will come up with next.

Riverrun: London 2020 9781529403657 342 pages Hardback

21 thoughts on “Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Telling truth to power”

  1. Sounds great, which I’m glad about since I’ll be reading it soon! He does seem to be a particularly versatile writer – even although I’ve only read a few of his stories, they’ve all been very different.

  2. I’m very tempted. I’ve read a few books set in the 30 Years War and they were both confusing and depressing. This one sounds a bit more entertaining, although I expect it’s still confusing and depressing.

  3. He’s a writer I find intimidating. I’m not sure when this way of thinking about his writing began but it feels like it’s been established my mind for some time. But this sounds so good. I wonder if maybe he’s like Toni Morrison or Iris Murdoch – writers whose intellectualism is so often discussed that one can overlook what good storytellers they are too – both writers who intimidated me at some point but then I was surprised to simply enjoy their books!

  4. Isn’t it wonderful when a favourite writer wins you over like this, enabling you to enjoy a novel that sounds somewhat different to your usual reads? It’s a great compliment to Kehlmann’s skills as a writer and storyteller.

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