Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., "Mother Night"

– e-book

Read from December 5th to 16th 2014

My rating :

In the cuckoo's  nest

In her excellent review of Mother Night published in New York Times 41 years ago (here it is), Doris Lessing observes that the power of Vonnegut’s prose derives mainly from the refuse let humanity drift – that is, to let it embrace its lack of responsibility and its childish categories: white versus black, strength versus weakness, good versus evil: “The force of Vonnegut's questioning is such that one has to sit sown to think, to define degrees: Vonnegut simply cannot bear what we are, of course—like a lot of writers. The growl, the wince, the scream, that come off so many pages is due to this.” She continues with a brisk reminder that the guilt for Nazi horrors should be shouldered also by all those who, with their passivity and indifference, let them happen.

Innocence and guilt, heroism and treachery, are there as clearly defined as they seem? Are there truly opposite? Or, like the title suggests, do they generate from each other? Goethe’s Mephistopheles used to dream of a regressus ad originem, forcefully wishing light to be annihilated again by the mother night that borne it. But if it’s Mephistopheles’s job to spread darkness and fight against the light, what about the others? Those who believe themselves on the light side while helping the Devil with their own carelessness? They are quite a few, and among them the most controversial are those walking on the line that divides the two concepts, trying to keep balance on the thin thread until the imminent fall.

Howard W. Campbell Jr. is one of them, a Nazi propagandist hiding an American spy… or is the other way around? He writes his memories while awaiting his trial, memories with double dedication: first to a controversial, legendary woman, Mata Hari, who “whored in the interest of espionage”, then to himself, who was no better:
This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.
Campbell’s drama is not a new one – every undercover agent (and, why not? - every soap opera actor) could testify about the progressive loss of his inner self, until all moral values become confused in his efforts to convincingly identify with the evil character he plays. The problem is to detect the exact moment he oversteps the line – when does he become a bad guy? Moreover, does he? Campbell’s father-in-law, a German chief police who always suspected him of espionage, tells him just before the war was lost, that he found the matter irrelevant in the end, since:
…you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us... I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler — but from you…. You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.' 
Even his undercover contact, his “blue fairy godmother” sincerely believes he was a Nazi, because he succeeded too well in his mission. This is why the American government assures his escape but never exonerates him. And he discovers that once stepping into the grey zone, you can never leave it again. After fifteen years in Purgatory – an anonymous life in New York, his past catches up with him and even though for a short while he seems to have a right to redemption (miraculously his long lost wife reappears, he makes friends and dreams to leave New York and reinvent himself) he finds out that all is a lie, orchestrated by his very friend to be sent to Russia. Furthermore, he learns that his writings were stolen by a former Russian soldier who had become rich and famous pretending he was the author. Like in the famous advertisement of a meat company that claimed they could use every part of a pig but its squeal, Campbell realizes that the world feasted thoroughly of his self until nothing was left:
The part of me that wanted to tell the truth got turned into an expert liar! The lover in me got turned into a pornographer, The artist in me got turned into ugliness such as the world has rarely seen before.'

Even my most cherished memories have now been converted into catfood, glue and liverwurst!
What is Campbell’s fault? He let it happen. He hid his responsibility behind his mission, teaching himself so well not to feel guilt, or loss, or fear of death, or love, or even faith that the absurd and the grotesque became irrelevant for him. Maybe his greatest guilt is quite this: the guilt of indifference and although human justice doesn’t try him for it, he cannot find a reason to live anymore – his inner clock, like the famous cuckoo clock from Hell, keeps skipping time arbitrarily and the only way to escape it is death. Or is it? The final farewell wears a disquieting question mark:

They say that a hanging man hears gorgeous music. Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf. All the same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas.'
Goodbye, cruel world!

Auf wiedersehen?

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