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The meaning of Tyll

The meaning of Tyll

This week’s celebrated International Booker Prize shortlisted novel is Tyll, written by Daniel Kehlmann and translated by Ross Benjamin. Their contributions show up a curious anomaly: the difference between what an author and translator see as the book’s core and what the reader sees. According to Kehlmann, Tyll “is about the Thirty Years War, which means it is about war, what war means, what it does to the world, what total meltdown for reasons of partisanship and religious anger what that looked like when it happened”. Of course it is, but most readers would say, one suspects, that it is less about these overarching themes than about the person of Tyll Eulenspiegel, the jester and prankster of German folklore who is the novel’s eponymous central character. His adventures take place during the war but is he the story or are his times? Benjamin too sees the book as “a novel about the Thirty Years War” but found the greatest satisfaction of his role in rendering the novel’s numerous idioms: “there are fairy tales, there are archaic prayers and magic spells, and folklore and pompous court etiquette and peasant speech . . .” and getting these across was, he says, “the most challenging” part of his work but luckily “the most fun”. 


Kehlmann also explained that part of what attracted him to the topic when he started work on the book in 2012 was “how untimely it felt”. Now though the idea of “the complete meltdown of civilisation” has become imaginable in a way that it wasn’t before. If that sounds grim, take heart. One of the judges, Jeet Thayil, points out that “there’s not a page that doesn’t give you some sort of pleasure to read”. Next week, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season comes under the spotlight.


In a fascinating recent interview, Colson Whitehead, Booker Prize nominated for The Underground Railway in 2017 and subsequently a double Pulitzer Prize winner, had an interesting but blunt reflection on the relationship between art and politics. “Politicians don’t read,” he said, so the power of fiction to affect policy makers is limited. “In terms of legislation, the people who might be moved by a work of art and then be further moved to enact some law, are not usually the people who read or listen to music. On an individual level, art elevates and nourishes and revitalises, but in terms of legislation it is a long time since the novel had that centrality in the culture in America.” What he didn’t say was whether he could envisage this dysfunctional relationship changing any time soon.


Congratulations to Oyinkan Braithwaite, Booker Prize longlisted last year with My Sister the Serial Killer, who has just won the Crime and Thriller Book of the Year award at the British Book Awards – the Nibbies. In the aftermath, Braithwaite let slip the startling line that: “I didn’t write the book to get published – it was an exercise for myself because I’m terrible when it comes to finishing stories.” It suggests that she should set herself other remedial tasks: if she’s bad at ironing she might end up a couturier or if she doesn’t like cooking she’ll probably be opening a restaurant before long. Bernardine Evaristo had another good night at the Nibbies, to add to her lengthy list of good nights. She was named not just Author of the Year, but Girl, Woman, Other won the Fiction Book of the Year gong.


This column doesn’t usually do book plugs – once started, where do you stop? – but will make an exception for Brian Moore. The North Irish-Canadian Moore (his first name was pronounced Bree-an) died way back in 1999 and during his writing career he was Booker Prize shortlisted no fewer than three times. Since his death, however, and at times during his life, the author of Black Robe and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne has been somewhat under the radar. So, 21 years after his death, the recent publication of The Dear Departed (Turnpike Books), a collection of his short stories – the first time they have been gathered together – offers a wonderful opportunity to discover/rediscover this most accomplished and varied of novelists.