A jester is an outsider — the motley-clad fool who can poke fun at the mighty and speak truth to power. His role in history is to amuse, of course, but also to expose flaws in those deemed to be above ordinary censure. It’s a tightrope walk: One slip and one’s life is forfeit. At his best, as with Shakespeare’s various fools, he serves an almost divine function, leveling humanity.
Tyll Ulenspiegel, the mercurial protagonist of German author Daniel Kehlmann’s darkly brilliant new novel, fulfills all these roles — reflecting the vanity and folly of those in power, while also serving as a mirror of the times. In Kehlmann’s hands, Tyll, based on the German folk hero better known here as Till Eulenspiegel, also has a compelling personal story, one he alternately reveals in jest and dances away from.
In German folklore, Tyll is a joker whose tricks often highlight people’s worst traits. But while the classic figure probably dates to the 1300s, Kehlmann puts Tyll in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), when the essentially feudal society was being ripped to shreds in ways that would help shape modern Europe.
Reminiscent of Marguerite Yourcenar’s “The Abyss,” which is set slightly earlier, “Tyll” is merciless, following its protagonist through a war-torn continent terrorized by lawless mercenaries and equally bloodthirsty religious zealots. It’s a world where the possession of a book can result in execution for heresy, but one quick-witted boy just might be able to find his balance between deadly extremes.
Like one of Tyll’s japes, the core story takes some unraveling. The jester is first introduced as a traveling entertainer, a stranger whose arrival excites a village. A master of his art, he trades in jokes and contradictions. “I’m Tyll,” he tells a local girl. “My sister over there is Nele. She’s not my sister.”
As he performs, the girl is mesmerized. She’s not alone. The visitor wields a strange kind of power over his audience, one that ultimately reveals the foolishness of blind obedience. The option, he suggests to the girl, is freedom.
“Think of the old saying,” Tyll says, inviting her to join his small band with what will become a recurring motif. “You can find something better than death everywhere.”
The choice is so difficult as to be almost unimaginable. This is a static society, where assigned roles have long meant stability and protection. As Nele, Tyll’s traveling companion, explains: “Girls don’t go to other places. They stay where they were born; so it has always been.”
Only, in Tyll’s world, war and change are overturning those certainties, wreaking havoc with the norms. From that village girl to the Queen of Bohemia, none are immune, although all who come into contact with the quicksilver Tyll have at least a moment of grace — a few pages of narrative in which they can ponder their choices and their fate. It’s an episodic and nonlinear approach, and Ross Benjamin’s translation gives a clarity to the individual voices that render their stories — tragedies, for the most part — profoundly humane.
Tyll’s own story is interspersed throughout, his narrative weaving together all the tales. The son of an intellectually curious but incautious miller, as a boy Tyll survives a near-death experience when a bully throws him into the mill stream and he passes under the mill’s wheel. His mother sees this as a blessing: “You’ve now been baptized twice.” But the device also has resonance as the symbolic “wheel of fortune,” a pagan allegory that gained popularity in medieval morality plays.
Tyll soon learns about the wheel’s turns and that religion is not his ally. He becomes the ultimate escape artist — on the road, on the wire, joking and telling stories without a care in the world. Except that this is a world full of cares, and at the core of Tyll’s story is a situation he couldn’t slip away from.
By the time we learn of this subsequent trauma, we are deep in the turning of the wheel. A king is deposed so quickly that a traveling ballad singer is forced to hurriedly rewrite his verses. A fat count accepts an assignment that will threaten his life — and make his fame. Along the way Tyll pops in and out, both up and down, as we find him buried in a mine or entertaining at court. On a rare occasion he meets a peer, such as that queen, who is using illusion in her own way to assert her rights. But even as he reflects back the humanity of all who encounter him, Tyll stands apart.
“I’m made of air,” he says at his lowest moment. “Nothing will happen to me. … All this is still fortunate.” For Tyll understands fortune, and how its wheel turns.
By Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin
Pantheon, 351 pp., $26.95