Growing up I wanted to be a circus strongman or some sort of trickster god. Unfortunately, I could never choose a leotard and as of yet have not transcended the mortal realm, so, at least until the next leotard catalogue arrives in the mail, I will have to settle for reading about the fearsome and magnificent beasts and trickster gods, too.
While “Tyll” by Daniel Kehlmann isn’t about a trickster god, it is about the sort of character who could, over the centuries and with the aid of the human propensity for myth-making and gullibility, be recast as one. The titular character is a great jester and pulls some fine trickery, but he starts out, as most of us do, as a child with a mania for learning how to walk a tightrope. When some terrible people (including the inventor of a musical instrument that produces its sounds by torturing cats) have his father executed because he knows some science and therefore must be a witch, Tyll flees his awful home to make his way around an awful world that’s in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.
But, for reasons that (I think) become apparent if you love the novel enough to properly ponder and maybe reread it, before you know Tyll as the son of a witchhunt victim, you know him as a man who starts a riot in a town by, after enthralling them with a performance, convincing everyone to throw their shoes in the air. If you’re familiar with 17th century footwear (and I assume you are), then you’ll know it might be easy to get your shoes confused if everyone in town throws them up in the air at the same time. The non-chronological storytelling serves the story, and if you were to put the chapters in order, it would be a lesser novel, which is a good reason not to cut up a copy of “Tyll” and put the chapters in chronological order.
Furthermore, there is a talking donkey in this book.
I’ve recommended Daniel Kehlmann before, but both the blog post and book I specifically recommended have been purged from the library’s finite virtual and literal spaces. Fortunately, “Tyll” and “Fame” are still available, and they are both a delight. Indeed, while it’s impossible to say someone is the world’s greatest living writer, I do believe Daniel Kehlmann belongs in the conversation if that is a conversation that happens.
(Ross Benjamin translated “Tyll” from German to English, and apparently did a great job. I can’t speak for how close it is to the German, but I know it reads real good in English.)