In the introduction to his sublime Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut famously warns “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Take Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the novel’s captivating narrator. He wasn’t careful at all, and now he’s sitting in an Israeli jail waiting to be tried for war crimes. Hi ho.
Thirty years earlier during the 1930s, Campbell was an American playwright of “modest reputation” living in Germany. He was married to a beautiful German actress, and they were a “nation of two.” What could possibly go wrong? A brushfire called World War II.
Immediately before the war started, Campbell was recruited by an American agent to be a spy. Campbell agreed because “I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out.” He succeeded outrageously and for all the world to hear. He became a radio broadcaster and propagandist for the Nazis; however, during his broadcasts he sent coded messages to the Americans to help the Allies win the war. But to the world, he is a “shrewd and loathsome anti-Semite.” His outward support for Nazism ultimately lands him in that Israeli jail.
Mother Night is Campbell’s confession to the Israelis. He gives it voluntarily and eagerly. But he’s not interested in exoneration. He readily admits to being a “man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.” Is this irony or just a statement of fact? Does it matter?
Because here’s the thing. Campbell was a spy for the good guys in that war, but he still helped the Nazis. His father-in-law, early in the war, had suspected Campbell of being a spy. He hoped Campbell would be shot as a traitor. By the war’s end, he no longer cared if Campbell was a spy or not. “Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us . . . I realized that almost all the ideas I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you . . . You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.” That’s quite an indictment. And it is one of the passages that makes this book brilliant. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Campbell’s vicious propaganda assisted the Nazis in their brutality. It is not clear at all how he helped the Allies. Given the severe consequences of all his lies, does being an American spy save him from condemnation?
Mother Night is obsessed with lies and their consequences. And though it was written more than 60 years ago, it is as relevant now as ever. Chew on this if you doubt me: “I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor