How is it that I’ve gone this many decades without knowing this book existed. I was as big a fan of Kurt Vonnegut as any of the other nerds in my high school class. I even found copies of the existing Kilgore Trout novels an “author” any true Kurt Vonnegut fan will recognize.
I thought I had read them all.
Then one of the guests on A Good Read, my favorite BBC4 radio podcast which you should be listening to, brought Mother Night to the panel who mostly liked it.
So off to my local library I went.
Mother Night is about an agent for the United States who goes so far under cover in pre-war Germany that he rises to great heights as their main propaganda voice. His radio broadcasts are so successful that many German soldiers credit him with inspiring them to keep going throughout the war. After the end of the war, the allied forces and later the Israeli government call for his prosecution as a war-criminal.
Throughout the novel he claims to have been an agent who passed along secret transmissions through the pauses and verbal ticks he employed in his broadcasts. But has pretending to be Nazi made him one?
Mr. Vonnegut, in the book’s introduction, claims that this novel has a moral, and unlike his other work, he knows what the moral is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. But I’m not sure I buy this. The panel on A Good Read was largely skeptical as well.
While the entire world sees the narrator as a war-criminal, only one man within the U.S. government knows what his real work was, the narrator never convinced this reader that he was guilty. He plays the part of a Nazi propagandist very well, true, but he’s playing a part. It might be said that when he acts for the allies he is also playing a part; deep down, he’s not all that passionate about either side. He is something of a chameleon who goes along with the group to get along with the group, but he rayrel commits either way.
In his situation that might be a great fault in his character, enough to condemn him morally, but not legally.
So, I’m not buying the moral.
But I did enjoy the book. It predates Slaughterhouse-Five by five years and two books but it’s got none of the science fiction elements. While the plot does ask for more suspension of disbelief than most, its the realistic novel for people who complain about Haruki Murakami’s use of magical realism. It’s strange, it’s got an odd sense of humor, the story-telling is not quite as straightforward as some might like, but there’s nothing other-worldly here.
For Kurt Vonnegut Mother Night is a pretty straightforward novel.
And one I enjoyed quite a bit.