#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews TYLL by Daniel Kehlmann

Tyll is a stunning achievement, an entertaining and philosophical novel about the ravages of war and religious division, with a thrilling central character of Shakespearean depth and breadth. The novel is a breathtaking testament to Daniel Kehlmann’s great intellect, imagination and meticulous skills as a literary historian.

As readers, we are treated to both a panoramic overview of medieval Germany, as well as microscopic detail as we are led by the hand through the village where Tyll was born, down to the river and deep into the forest. We see the pebbles in the river, the cows and goats in their pens, the food placed on the Uhlenspiegel table, the poverty and hard labour. We listen in to their conversations and their thoughts. Kehlmann has immersed himself in the historic period of Central Europe of the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War (1618–48), as battles were fought over territory, imperial rule and religious dominance. He has imagined the ideas, language, the stories people told each other, their beliefs, their fears. The writing is seductive, witty but never self-serving: Kehlmann is a discreet narrator who pushes himself hard, intellectually and stylistically, with every sentence.  

The novel relates the epic life of Tyll Uhlenspiegel (aka Till Eulenspiegel), a mythical figure from German folklore, first appearing in literature in the 16th century. He’s a trickster, jester, rogue, tramp, traveller, circus performer, magician and a wise fool whose purpose – like the Fool in Shakespeare’s plays – is to play pranks on people and expose their weaknesses, hypocrisy and vanity. We see Tyll made real, from boyhood to adulthood to old age, and follow him as he travels across Europe philosophising and entertaining. Tyll’s father Claus had been a simple miller, a kind pious man, a village healer and sage, a reader and thinker pursuing the Holy Grail of Knowledge, mesmerised by the power of books. After a clash with Jesuit witch-hunters (fresh from England after the Gunpowder Plot!), Claus is tried for heresy and hanged alongside a local witch. The next day the young Tyll leaves home and begins his adventures. He shows no grief, no pain, nothing. He is already tough and primed to follow the money and the mayhem for the rest of his life.

As a child Tyll had taught himself how to walk a tightrope – it becomes a valuable life skill. Early in the novel we see him arriving with his troupe in a village. Suddenly, above them, the villagers see a black rope extended from the church window, and they are spellbound:

Above us Tyll Uhlenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly – not like someone in danger but – like someone looking around with curiosity. He stood with his right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips. And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was. We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people.

Like the villagers, we witness Tyll’s magnetism and incredible powers of survival. He flourishes while all around him there is war, starvation, captivity and plague. He weaves himself in and out of others’ stories, one moment down on his luck, the next the jester at the royal court in Imperial Vienna.

It’s a grim life. The thirty years of war in Europe were bleak; millions of people died from fighting, famine and disease, but the fictional and fantastic potential of the character Tyll liberates Kehlmann to fly into realms of ‘magical realism and adventure’ (publisher’s description), in stark contrast to the descriptions of the horrific reality of Europe’s political and religious dogmas and the ideology of the day. For the several centuries of the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was divided roughly into a Lutheran north and Catholic south. When the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II tried unsuccessfully to impose religious harmony, the brutal religious and political conflict of the Thirty Years War began. Every single European power became sucked in, parts of Germany lost half their population, no single country could claim victory and Europe was changed forever.

The novel acquires further depth and colour when real-life historical figures join the cast of witches, warlords, tradespeople, travellers and scholars. There’s Frederick, King of Bohemia and his wife, the sad Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, exiled daughter of King James I of England and granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots. ‘Liz’, as Tyll calls her, is the closest he comes to making a friend and they meet several times over the many decades of the novel. Liz is a great fan of Shakespeare and misses England. She and Tyll hold lively conversations about plays and performance.  As the novel ends, both of them old and tired from all their travels and travails, she offers him a comfortable final chapter. But Tyll has no intention of dying or bowing out of history, or of Daniel Kehlmann’s novel:

‘Peace is coming, Tyll.’ Liz says.

‘I will return home. Across the sea to England. Do you want to come with me? I’ll give you a warm room, and you won’t go hungry. Even when you one day are no longer able to perform.’

Tyll replies:

‘Are you offering me charity, little Liz? A daily soup and a thick blanket and warm slippers until I die in my bed?’

‘That’s not so bad.’

‘But do you know what’s better? Even better than dying in one’s bed?’

‘Tell me.’

‘Not dying, little Liz. That is much better.’

And then Tyll simply disappears. The ultimate survivor, he’s probably still alive somewhere in Europe today, on stage in a theatre, on a battlefield, in a village or a royal court, the living, breathing hero of this outstanding European novel of our times.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


by Daniel Kehlmann

Translated by Ross Benjamin 

Published by Riverrun (Quercus) (2020)

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Rosie Goldsmith is Director and Founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018–2020.

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Category: The Austrian RiveterApril 2023 - The Austrian RiveterReviews


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