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A novel about serving evil too openly and good too secretly
on 21 August 2003
To the best of my knowledge, there really is no other writer quite like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Mother Night appears to be a rather straightforward, albeit quirky, novel at first glance, but as one delves down into the heart of Vonnegut's prose one finds grounds for contemplation of some of life's most serious issues. This novel is the first-hand account of Howard Campbell, Jr., a most remarkable character. Campbell is an American-born citizen who moved to Germany as a child and became the English-speaking radio mouthpiece for Nazi Germany during World War II. In the fifteen years since the end of the war, he has been living an almost invisible life in a New York City attic apartment. He misses his German wife Helga who died in the war, sometimes thinks about his pre-war life as a successful writer of plays and poems, and perhaps just waits for history to find him once again. As we begin the novel, he has been found and is writing this account from a jail cell in Israel, awaiting trial for his crimes against humanity. While he is reviled by almost everyone on earth as an American Nazi traitor, the truth is that he was actually an agent working for the American government during the war; this is a truth he cannot prove, though. Thus, in this 1961 novel, the hero is ostensibly a Nazi war criminal.
The primary moral of Mother Night, Vonnegut tells us in his introduction, is that "we are what we pretend to be" and should thus be pretty darned careful about what we are pretending to be (a secondary moral being the less enlightening statement "when you're dead, you're dead"). In the eyes of the entire world, Campbell is exactly what he pretended to be during the war, a traitorous Nazi purveyor of propaganda who mocked and demoralized allied troops as well as regular citizens. Internally, Campbell hardly knows what he is anymore; he claims no country, no political values, wanting only to live in a "nation of two" with his beloved wife Helga once again. A series of significant events forces Campbell out of the cocoon of his past fifteen years, and his thoughts and actions along the way provide big juicy morsels of food for thought: taking personal responsibility for one's actions, the harsh truths of war and peace, the sometimes vast differences between truth and fact, individual redemption before self and society, finding direction and a purpose in a world gone mad, etc. Vonnegut's scythe-like dark humor cuts deeper than mere satire, aiming directly at some of the darker sections of the human heart, areas which most individuals too often ignore or refuse to acknowledge. The gallows humor can be quite funny on the surface, but it is in actuality a scalpel which Vonnegut wields to open up the heart and soul of the reader for self-examination. Mother's Night, the title of which is taken from Goethe's Faust, is a relatively short but very powerful novel.