Tyll is a classic. It is a book that can repay several readings: a picaresque novel, full of incident, that combines the narrative drive of a medieval fable with the psychological insights of a modern novel. Although Kehlmann is not a great champion of the historical novel, this historical, comical, tragical, mythological novel deserves to be celebrated.
The main character, Tyll, is dragged from German medieval folklore into the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This is a dark world and its nearest modern parallels are to the Syrian conflict. The questions it probes are who is fighting and what are they fighting for.
Like Jonathan Swift before him, Kehlmann can create humour out of conflict and poke fun at the absurdity of war. At the start Tyll creates a mini-war from shoe throwing that is as absurd as the conflict between the Big Endians and Little Endians in Gulliver’s Travels. Kehlmann takes elements from Chaucer and Shakespeare and fashions them in his own interests. The village has a miller and a reeve like The Canterbury Tales and is swirled around by witchery of the foul variety like Macbeth. In this Early Modern world the primitive is still prevalent.
Where Kehlmann excels is in the creation of small details that stand for greater ideas, for example, a heap of grain and its division show the development of the philosophic, enquiring mind of the miller, Tyll’s father, Claus Ulenspiegel. The questioning of the autodidact is superior to the questioning of his inquisitors who rest on old ideas that are superannuated.
In the novel the world is continuously being turned upside down, both metaphorically and literally:
“The carpenter Moritz Blatt and the blacksmith Simon Kern pummelled each other so ferociously that someone who thought they were fighting over shoes could not have understood, since he would not have known that Moritz’s wife had been promised to Simon as a child.”
Tyll moves through the narrative as court jester and truth teller, the fool before power. The theatrical aspect of Tyll makes his sudden appearances more important than the plot. The occasional longueurs are caused by his absence from the central stage. Compared to our hero/anti-hero Palatinate royalty are but walk on parts.
Any Cop?: For Kehlmann the fragmentary Thirty Years’ War is ideal. It unleashes his metaphorical powers to expose the complexities and absurdities of conflicts from the village to the state. He creates an Early Modern world that is the darkest age as fascinating as it is cruel.