NOVEL: Mother Night
AUTHOR: Kurt Vonnegut
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1961
I first discovered Vonnegut as a teenager, picking up his paperbacks at the library used book sale and finding that his novels and stories were like nothing I’d ever read before.
Back then, I was taken with the bizarre and fantastical: alien races influencing world events, a narrator “unstuck in time,” graphic and crude line drawings (in a book meant for adults!), ice that covered (and destroyed) the entire world, and so it goes.
But now I think that Mother Night is his best work, and there’s nary a Tralfamadorian in sight.
This is the story of Howard Campbell, Jr., notorious Nazi and war criminal, hoping to prove to an Israeli court that he was actually an American spy during WWII, submitting coded messages undercover, while spewing hateful propaganda.
Vonnegut tells us the moral up front in his introduction; “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Then, he shows us exactly what he means.
There’s plenty of gallows humor to be found here, and plenty of hard truth. Unlike the more famous Slaughterhouse-Five (which describes the horrors of the Dresden firebombing) this book concentrates not on the hell of war, but on the purgatory of its aftermath, and the moral reckoning of its participants, whatever their initial intentions.
Campbell is a more human, more rounded character than many of Vonnegut’s creations, which is why the absurdities and atrocities which pile up in this short novel are that much more powerful.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): Four-And-A-Half Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
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The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki
The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
Up At The Villa, W. Somerset Maugham
Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org